I’ve been accused more than once of lacking a sense of nostalgia. Having been recently reunited with my old teddy bear, I now have evidence to support disagreeing. But I can see where people would get that impression: I don’t keep old photos, I don’t upload anything but videos of dry ice shenanigans to facebook, and when I hang out with my oldest friends we don’t talk about the old days much. The truth is, I often think about the past; maybe I don’t keep reminders around because I remember much of it.
But then there’s this blog. Better to record than forget, right?
Trick of it is, it’s hard to know what to record. See, I suffer from a particular form of narcissism that manifests a singular symptom: if I don’t know a fact about someone, I assume whatever would apply to me. If I don’t know your age, you’re probably 28. If I read an androgynous name in the paper, like Terry or Pat, I assume it’s a dude. All while I’ve suffered this disease, I’ve believed the rest of the world had pretty sweet childhoods, too.
Some reading this blog might get the impression I had a troubled childhood. That’s true to a point–the family was always a tad on-the-rocks, and I’ve always been a bit of a basket case–but most of it was, as I said, pretty sweet. It’s time to correct the mistaken. I dedicate the rest of this post to my misspent youth.
I enjoyed the best opportunities as a child. I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in a modest house on quiet little Greenwood Drive, with a big, towering, flourishing tree in the front yard and a backyard with more trees of all shapes and a hill for sledding and a deck where I could lord over the domain. There were other kids in the neighborhood. Jearl lived next door for many years, Jenny and Kevin’s backyard touched mine, my sweetheart Holly Bradley lived up on Jenny’s cul de sac, and the other Holly and Roger lived next door to her. We were never wealthy enough to afford expensive diversions, and I was the youngest and most easily-forgotten of three kids, so I was encouraged to escape and play outside as long as there was daylight. This was in the days before cell phones, before electronic tethers maintained the umbilical between parent and child, and oh, it was glorious.
I made the most of my freedom. Play was deliverance, a spiritual experience, a chance to revel in the majesty of being a kid, carefree and burden-free and only slightly terrified by it all. Then I met Kelly, who had a trampoline and a swimming pool, and the fun really multiplied.
Even during the school year there was plenty of time for shenanigans. After second grade I stopped doing homework, reasoning that I’d score plenty well enough on the tests to move on to the next grade. Why sweat the small stuff when there was playing to do?
Reminds me of a guy I knew in law school who once lamented that his girlfriend’s dachshund was too calculating a beast for his liking. On rainy days the hound would shit on the carpet rather than go outside, knowing that whatever punishment came his way wouldn’t be as bad as braving the storm.
In the dog’s defense, I’d imagine it’s awfully unpleasant to feel your dangly bits dragging through wet grass. Commence stories!
THE THINKING ROCK
I was boasting about my memory earlier, but even now plenty of things are fading. Back in elementary school my mom worked as a night nurse in the psych ward. I think she had weird days off, too–maybe Thursdays? Fridays? Was it a psych ward? Maybe, maybe.
Some days, when she had a little more time than others, my mom would pick me up from school and we’d go adventuring. ‘Splorin’. My little hometown, Dale City, has always been under construction. Those days after school my mom and I would drive through and investigate all the new subdivisions, or she’d show me the old neighborhoods where she and my dad first lived when my brother was just born, or we’d pick a road and drive to its limit to see what was at the end. Exploration, just for the hell of it.
My vanity makes me wonder: What, you didn’t do that with yours? Full credit to my mother for encouraging a sense of wonder and possibility in me way early. All we needed were pith helmets. I have a niece, and she reads books about a pig named Olivia who exclaims, “Make every day extraordinary!” I’d never heard of Olivia until my niece came along, but I didn’t need to because I had my mom: she showed me that adventure, the opportunity to experience something extraordinary, was everywhere, sometimes even in our front yard.
Our front walkway to our house back then had an L-bend to it. It left the house directly for a few steps, then made a tidy right turn towards the driveway. There was a tree a few yards off the corner of the walk covering the top of the hill that filled most of the front yard.
Well, one day, maybe I’m five, or six, or whatever, my mom, always with an eye for aesthetics, stands on the front porch, surveys the yard, and makes a declaration: We need a rock for beneath the tree. The next time she picked me up from school she brought the truck. Rock hunting time.
Sometimes when people say “truck” they mean “Ford Explorer” or “Jeep” or something else that’s not a truck at all. This, friends, was a truck, a no-AC, radio-only, crank-the-window-down-by-hand Chevy S10 Pickup. The engine ran on fury and vinegar. It couldn’t be killed by mortals. Call it vehicular seppuku at the end–the old truck impaled itself on its own piston rod when my brother red-lined the engine racing a Cadillac up Prince William Parkway. Joe told my Dad, “I really smoked that Caddy.” My dad asked Joe, “Which one of you drove away?” A fitting epitaph for a mighty truck.
I tell you about the truck because you deserve a good story and the the hunt for the rock was actually pretty easy. There was a subdivision breaking ground not far from our neighborhood, and we could see fantastic rocks scattered all over from the road. The construction workers told me we could pick whichever rock we wanted; my mom’s a charmer. We settled on a trapezoidal rock, as big as a laundry basket, with a flat top. I set my shoulder to the rock, groaned, strained, struggled, and moved it a millimeter. My mom’s new construction buddy gave it a bear hug, lifted it straight, and threw it in the back of the truck. Didn’t even bother to stretch.
We took that rock home and put it under the tree and my mom was right. The rock was a perfect fit, and we were glad to have it. I forget it’s weird to be thankful towards a rock, but I have to remember that you probably didn’t have a rock as awesome as mine in front of your house.
After a few seasons of acclimating to the wind and rain the rock must’ve started feeling welcome, because it began peeking out of its shell. The side facing the house weathered in a humanly fashion. With the sun in the right position the shadows would trace a nose, two eyes, and a smiling mouth along the side. The face looked old, which made sense because I suspect the rock was very old too, and that was comforting to me for some reason. We welcomed the old man in the rock to our front yard.
The rock, I should mention, performed its duties admirably. Maybe based on my early experiences adventuring with my mom, I’ve made a study later in life of suburban planning and subdivision aesthetics. (For those keeping score at home, that sentence counts as three red flags: one mama’s boy and a double nerd.) I’m forever struck by how plain most yards are these days, so cultivated and so boring. Flat expanses of grass and the occasional juvenile tree. I think almost all of them could use a rock, if only to break up the monotony of grass. Rocks are zen to a certain degree in the way they defy questions–What’s a rock supposed do? It does. But I’ll have to cut around it and some grass won’t get clipped all the time! So?
Let’s not overlook that the rock gave my family a place to sit out front. Think: Especially in the suburbs, how many people put furniture in front of their houses? All the white people I know hang out in their back yards if they ever see the sun at all. This is a great shame, if only because back yards tend to be fenced in and private. I’m forever amazed at how we can live so close to each other and yet know so little about one another. Sitting on the thinking rock at least had a feeling of community. It was a shared space–perched atop a hill to see up and down the street and to be seen by the passing cars and neighbors headed to work.
The older and busier I get, the more I wish I was sitting on the thinking rock, enjoying the world as it passed for a minute. An open door is an invitation. It was always there, ready for an ass to plop down and contemplate the world beneath a tree. A few years ago I passed by the old house, and I was sad to see the rock was gone. So was the tree.
My brother Joe has always been into electronics. When we were kids my dad ran a computer repair company, so we always had plenty of spare parts to tinker with. We also had a modem and Internet access well before anyone else in the neighborhood knew what that even meant. Combine the two and you have a tinkerer with a wealth of information at his disposal, for better or worse.
One useful application: Back in high school Joe needed a TI-85 graphing calculator. By the time I graduated to the algebraic ranks the TI-85 had been replaced by the more sophisticated TI-83+, complete with a data access port and cable that could be used to transfer programs between computers and other calculators. (I still recall fondly the days I spent in the back of Mrs. Pitt’s biology class, failing the course but beating the shit out of Alex at Tetris on our calculators.) But when Joe was in high school that was still a few years away.
Not to be daunted, Joe found some schematics online for a TI-85-to-IDE interface card that would let him load Tetris onto his calculator without having to program it line by line. He raided my dad’s workshop for a few electrical scraps, some cardboard, and a soldering iron, and within a few days he’d managed to build that interface. He’s handy that way.
I often wonder if my parents ever saw Joe and I coming. Put another way: I wonder if they ever had a sense of where our bizarre adventures would lead us. Because if they were smart they would have pulled the plug on the modem right then and there and sent us outside to play. Instead, buoyed by his recent success in Internet-based engineering, Joe went looking for another project. And he found the schematics to build potato guns.
A potato gun, like any other gun, is an elegantly simple device: it’s a tube designed to direct an explosion. Traditional firearms do this with metal barrels, gunpowder, and bullets. Our potato guns used PVC pipe, a gas grill striker, AquaNet hairspray, and potatoes. And while a traditional firearm at least requires you to be 18 to purchase, there were no prohibitions on sales of potato gun components to minors. It didn’t take long for Joe to realize that primitive artillery was within his grasp.
Now, to my parents’ credit, they realized that it was wiser to legalize and regulate potato gun technology in our household rather than to ban it outright. At some point Joe and I would have scraped together enough change to clandestinely purchase the materials on our own and subsequently blow off our hands on accident, and my parents knew this, so instead my Dad funded and oversaw the manufacturing process. I suspect he was at least a little proud of us, even if he knew in the back of his mind that normal children don’t make explosive weapons at home.
To everyone’s surprise, the first prototype worked and worked well. But that makes sense, as there’s not much that can go wrong with a potato gun. You fire one much like an old Civil War cannon–ram the potato down the barrel, unscrew the cap to the firing chamber, spray four seconds’ worth of AquaNet in, screw the cap back on, and you’re ready to fire. The firing chamber cap also housed the striking mechanism, a grill striker shoved through a hole in the PVC cap and sealed with epoxy. Once the cap was in place, all you had to do was aim and hit the striker.
I don’t come from a gun-owning family. I didn’t see a real gun fired until I was in my 20′s. So the first time firing a potato gun shocked the crap out of me. You’re familiar with Newton’s third law, right? That for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? You don’t know physics until you’ve seen a potato move. A bullet removed from its cartridge doesn’t weigh more than an ounce or two. A potato, on the other hand, could easily weigh a pound or more. So when that heavy potato is propelled out of a potato gun that same amount of force has to be distributed back across the gun itself, making the whole damn apparatus recoil like a kicking mule. And the sound! It was like thunder rending the heavens. For added effect a cone of red and orange flame spewed out of the barrel right behind the potato. The potato remnants, when we found them, had passed through a chain link fence and been sliced into diamond shapes.
The test fire prompted a new rule: no potato gunnery without adult supervision. To ensure compliance my parents kept the firing caps in their control, effectively disabling the weapons (eventually I also built one, with a slightly more advanced piezo-electric sparker rather than the less reliable flint-and-steel one Joe used in his). From that point on, after each round of target practice, we had to make sure we washed the cap and replaced it in my parents’ closet before they got home.
I ended up hanging onto those guns for a surprisingly long time. It wasn’t until I was in college that I eventually traded them to Steve for a LaVar Arrington jersey. I think he got the better end of the deal there, both because the Redskins cut LaVar the next year, and because the jersey wasn’t actually his–it had been left behind when his roommate was hauled away by the sheriff for armed robbery. But that’s an entirely different story.
I do this mostly because Red asked me to do this. For Christmas she wanted to read about herself. She also wanted a pillow. And there was a third thing I’m having trouble remembering.
So I dedicate what follows to my darling, Red. To Red: My tall ship and my star to steer by. My muse, my rulemaker, my supporter. Merry Christmas.
There are Four Rules for Dating Red.
Early on in my relationship with Red she declared that there are four rules I must follow. These are the dealbreakers. Cross these lines and I’m single. And maybe murdered in my sleep.
Some might think having so many ironclad rules is overly harsh. Not one, not two, not three. Four rules. Hell: God only needed ten rules to cover everything, and Red needs her own four.
But that’s viewing this from the wrong angle. Think of it the other way: Red doesn’t need ten; she can boil down correct behavior to four simple rules. And they’re really quite simple. I need no biblical interpreters or intermediaries to understand their import or what I am commanded to do. Plus I can just ask Red if I have any questions.
And there’s a definite plus side to having a set of rules like this. I know what not to do, and I can even use the rules to make some guesses about what to do. See, Red’s four rules are exhaustive. If Red’s mad at me, and I can’t figure out why, I just have to run through the rules. If I haven’t broken any, I’m good. I’m still in trouble but it’s the forgivable kind. Weapon of choice: Flowers and a movie with singing animals.
You’re curious, right? Without delay, the four rules for dating Red:
#1 – Don’t be an asshole.
#2 – No cheating.
#3 – Call at least every three days.
#4 – No talking to exes.
#1. Don’t Be An Asshole
The reasoning behind this rule is simple: Red doesn’t like assholes. I want Red to like me, so I shouldn’t be an asshole. Simple.
Red, well, she’s a little bit mean. Not a lot bit mean, but at least a little bit. Her mom once told her that she should be nicer to me, and I’m going to remind her of that until my dying day. But I can’t fault her savagery, because–and I remind you that she worked closely with my brother and hangs out with me all the time–she’s surrounded by assholes.
For Red, the onslaught is constant. There’s the “little bitch” in her nursing class making everyone look bad. There’s her step-father being helpful but not helpful enough. There’s me whining about lawyering being hard while she studies for a profession where you have to actually learn stuff. There’s the random jackasses on the road getting in her way. Everywhere she looks there are assholes. So I appreciate that she keeps her defenses up.
I’ve always thought Rule #1 was Red’s response to that onslaught. What’s important here is that I’ve already admitted to being an asshole on occasion–and she still likes me. I believe the rule recognizes that we’re all capable of being jerks to each other, even with the best of intentions. So the rule is a declaration as much as it is a direction: Whatever I’m doing, I promise I’m not trying to be an asshole, is always the underlying idea when we fight.
And if it goes the other way, well, I’ve gone too far. If I find myself about to say something that I know is just to be an asshole, well, I ought to stop. I maintain that we owe that duty to everyone else, and so I especially believe it where Red is involved.
Red is wonderful. Supportive, beautiful, intelligent, creative, clever. I could go on. Domica, five minutes after meeting her, told me Red was the best I’ll ever do. I’m inclined to agree. So I think a rule reminding me to always be kind to her is a good one to have around.
I should mention that Red’s views of asshole universalism square pretty well with my old man’s views on the matter, and so I think that’s one more reason I love her so dearly. There’s been a saying in my family for generations, “These people are driving like they’ve got paper assholes!” My grandpa Morty used to say it, my old man said it, and it was only recently he admitted he had no idea what it meant. But I don’t think you want a paper asshole.
So, er, kerplunk. I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself starting to shout paper assholes at traffic a few years back; my brother Joe does it too. I can’t say for certain what a paper asshole is, but if you had one I have no doubt you’d drive exactly like those pricks in front of me, by which I mean badly. Our father’s zen, channelled through the sons.
Red, my rage-prone darling, has already adapted the phrase to her own use. She likes to shout, “Don’t be a paper asshole!” when the mood strikes her. I still can’t say what a paper asshole is, but it feels like a pretty heavy burn when she drops it on someone.
She gets me.
#2. No Cheating
This is a simple edict, although I should mention in this day and age of lawyers and bizarre pansexuality and paraphilias that this rule follows the traditional definitions of the words. There’s no weaseling out of this one. No I-was-really-drunks, no dutch rudders, no she-only-gave-me-a-ballcuzzi, nothing.
Red’s exigesis: No futzing. She really doesn’t like being cheated on, so I can appreciate her wanting to make this a separate rule from #1 even if the two are about the same.
I should mention: Red likes to worry. It’s kind of a past-time for her. I encourage her to not worry, but it’s in her genes–she’s pale and therefore prone to suspicion. I’ve tried to convince her that I’m not what women want, but she remains unconvinced.
I think a lot of that comes from a story which needs a proper retelling. My family likes to pass it around at holiday dinners with the bread rolls. Red heard it secondhand from Joe before I ever really knew her, so I’ve never been able to offer a proper defense.
One time a few years back I was in Woodbridge visiting my family, and we decided to go out for dinner. We ended up at a stretch of slightly-better-than-Red-Robin restaurants on Prince William Parkway, and, well, I’d had relations with a server at the first place suggested. I considered not saying anything. There was no guarantee my old fling was working that night, and even if she was we weren’t likely to see her because it was busy, so I might have held my tongue. But she had a bit of a drug problem, and there was an ex-boyfriend involved who I’m not sure was ever really an ex, and this was supposed to be a nice dinner and I didn’t want to cause any trouble, so it made more sense to say something.
“Um. Maybe not there.” My family is pretty quick on the uptake, although I can’t recall if I ever confirmed what they were thinking. As a general rule I try and provide as little of that as possible. I’m sure my family can make some educated guesses at the depths of my character, but I prefer to leave them as guesses. Call that one confirmed sin then. Leave plenty of room on the scorecard for more.
So my Mom looked across the street, and proposed another place. I’d like to take a moment now and note that there were at least half a dozen other options, a solid ten if you include places like Chipotle and Chik-Fil-A. If she’d picked any of those places this story would never be told, because–to the best of my knowledge–I’ve never slept with anyone who worked at a Chipotle or any of the other nine places.
But she had to pick the one she did, and geography matters. See, she didn’t look far for her second choice, and that’s really what did me in. The staff at the first restaurant tended to spend their tips at the bar of the second restaurant, and it was through after-work drinks with the waitress at the first that I met the bartender at the second. It’s not like there was bad blood lingering, but these things never end as smoothly as you want them to, and I have a bad habit of not returning calls, and this was supposed to be a nice dinner, so, yeah.
“Um. Maybe not there either.” I shouldn’t have said anything, but that thought finished second to blurting out. Two confirmed sins. My family, to their credit, took my vetoes in stride, although I seem to recall Joe busting out laughing. The third choice was thankfully free of former relations, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. A delightful dinner was had, and a new page was written in the family history.
So Red hears this story from Joe, who tells a good story but is known to embellish, and she probably develops the same impression as everyone else who hear the story: Dan’s a man whore. But I swear that’s not the case. I have no game.
I appreciate the flip side here. Red likes me a whole bunch, and that’s why she looks at me and sees all the wonderful qualities her rivals might also see. She wouldn’t be all that attracted to me otherwise. And at one point in my life I managed to put together a series of moves that convinced Red to date me, which means I must’ve had some skill at one point or another. So, from Red’s perspective, I must have very impressive game.
Really though: I have no game. I once asked for permission before making out with someone at a party. My best pickup line was once “I like your shoes.” I wore a neon green shirt in middle school. No game.
So Red worries that I will forget about her. But how could I? She’s my person.
#3. Call At Least Every Three Days
This rule is entirely my fault. Turns out Red knew she liked me well before I knew she liked me, and the delay between the two was unacceptable for my impatient love.
Hindsight reveals there were signs, but I didn’t know that at time. We first met (for the third time), we exchanged wisdom, we parted ways, and a few days afterward she texted me saying thanks and offering to buy me a beer. I replied pleasantly but generally. It took me another couple weeks to realize that meant she wanted to go out with me and that I should call her. Again, things I know now.
So I finally call her. And on that next date, somewhere amid the beautiful artwork of the VMFA, she lays down a rule: Call at least every three days, asshole.
That was actually the first of Red’s four rules, which, come to think of it, means a great deal. See, Red and I don’t have an anniversary. We met in December and by February we were definitely dating. I’m not sure where in the meantime the transition occurred. I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen when I threw up in the planting beds behind Red’s apartment after our first date, but that’s the best contender yet for the magic moment.
So, you know, maybe our relationship truly started the moment I agreed to call at least every three days. All the standard pre-relationship questions ran through my head. Is this a good idea? Is she what I’m looking for? Will I be good to her? It’s to Red’s credit that it took only fractions of a second to answer all these questions affirmatively. Sure I’ll call. Because you’re kinda sorta my dream girl.
I told Red I was smitten at least a dozen times before she began to believe it. I believed it as soon as she made demands of me in the VMFA.
Sidenote: Most of my thoughts could double as Lionel Richie lyrics.
#4. No Talking to Exes
I think this rule is largely an extension of the second rule. Red’s reasoning goes like this: There’s no cheating allowed, and most cheating starts with exes, so no talking to exes to start cheating. There’s nuance just below the surface though.
Dating Red is more than just agreeing to rules. There’s a certain philosophy that supports the rules and informs Red’s world view, and if I can’t agree to that too I might as well not bother with the rules at all. At least Red’s philosophy is simple: love me.
Red calls it being her person. As in the person who will help you hide the bodies. As in the person who will make you chicken soup. As in the person who will support you unconditionally while forever keeping your ego in check. Right about the same time I was throwing up behind her apartment, Red was deciding she wanted me to be her person. It wasn’t much later before I wised up and realized I wanted Red to be my person too.
Being someone’s person is an exclusive position–there’s only one spot available. After all, what if you have two persons and they want to kill each other? How could you decide who to back? So to take on anyone as a person necessarily means casting aside all other candidates for the position. And I think that knowledge inspires Rule #4.
See, it’s not just enough to agree to a set of rules. Dating Red demands devotion, and attention, and constant reminders of the things I love about her. To rest content is to miss an opportunity to make her feel more loved. It ain’t easy, but to be Red’s person is totally worth it. I love her beyond my wildest imagination.
So there’s no talking to exes. They’re not my person, and there are good reasons why I’m not with any of them still, so there’s no reason to cling to what once was.
All told, I find this rule the easiest to follow. I’m a simple man. I want to devote myself to Red. I’m not thoughtful or kind enough to devote myself to anyone else also. So I just think about Red. She beats me when I disagree with her, she gets drunk and swears at me, she passes out with cheeseburgers dangling from her mouth, and I love her with all my heart. She’s my tall ship and my star to steer by. She is the one I want to make memories with, to build a life together with, to tackle the world boldly with, so I gladly burn my black book of strumpets and servers.
Four rules and honest devotion means a beautiful romance. It’s just that simple. I love you, Red
“A guy needs somebody―to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.” – John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
I’ve been pondering a playmate for my cat Roscoe for a while now. I’m about 80% convinced this is a brilliant idea, but I’ve been wrong about these things before, so now I offer it to the public for comment.
I love Roscoe. I didn’t know how much I could love a thing until Roscoe and I met, which was during a half-off adoption sale at the Richmond SPCA. I like to remind him he was a discount cat whenever he gets uppity.
We met in the catillion, a big room designed for cats to mingle with other cats. Roscoe was laying on a bench. I sat down next to him. I looked down at him and he looked up at me with his two little teeth poking out, making him look dumb but adorable. He got up, walked over to my lap, and plopped down in it. I’ve often fancied that his thoughts were immediate: Done deal. I’m going home with this one. The feeling was mutual.
I know I love Roscoe because I was completely wrong about him when we first met, and I don’t mind at all. The looking dumb part? Not an act. He really is a dumb cat. Other cats learn to get the hell out of the way after being stepped on a few times. Not Roscoe. His favorite part of the hallway is always exactly where you’re about to step. Roscoe hates getting wet so he avoids the bathroom. But when anyone goes in to do their business the bathroom becomes the most interesting place in the apartment; he’ll meow himself into a coughing fit trying to get in. I could go on, but it’s unkind to linger on the poor cat’s deficiencies.
And he’s not nearly so friendly as he made me think in the catillion. Turns out he was sick–he’d picked up a touch of giardia from the other cats–so mostly he was looking to cuddle until he felt better. He’s still a friendly cat, but, well, he has a hard time showing it. Chalk it up to his slowness. He really only has one emotion–excitement. He’s either not excited and sleeping somewhere, or he’s excited and eager to attack something. It’s a sliding scale–in between the two extremes he can be amusing as hell–but anyone looking for emotional depth or complexity would struggle to find it in my handsome beast.
Despite his retardation and his claws, I love that damn cat. He’s my comfort on tough days, my amusement on boring days, and a faithful companion every time in between. All I have to do is click my tongue and he’ll poke his doofus face around the corner and come visit. Plus we both share a love of milkshakes. Oh Roscoe.
While we’re talking about Roscoe, I should clear up a common misconception about him. Despite using alcoholiccat.com as my personal domain, Roscoe doesn’t have a drinking problem. He’s as sober as a judge. My domain name was inspired by a completely different cat with a booze problem. Roscoe won’t even drink the beer I offer to him, the dick.
All of this is preamble to what I really want to write about, which is my idea for a playmate for Roscoe. I’m taking deliberate pains here to make it clear that what I’m about to propose I propose mostly out of love for my feline buddy and only a little bit for selfish reasons.
I want to purchase a feeder mouse from the pet store and set it loose in my apartment for Roscoe to hunt. That’s the plan.
Stick with me now. Let me at least sell you on my plan before we start talking about all the reasons this is a bad idea. If there’s anything Roscoe loves more than milkshakes it’s a sporting hunt. A cicada flew in through an open window a few weeks back. Roscoe stalked it through the apartment for an hour and played with it for another two once he caught it. I’ve never seen him so pleased. He’d let it get a little bit away, then grab it and pull it back to him. Or he’d carry it in his mouth from one vantage point to another, presumably to find a place his cicada-friend would enjoy too. A preying mantis came to visit a few weeks before that, and Roscoe spent two days in my closet staring at it on the ceiling.
He once caught a mouse at my last apartment and laid it next to his toy mouse to complete the set. Then he meowed in my face like a madman until I woke up. “I didn’t mean no harm, George.”
I figure a mouse would at least have a sporting chance compared to a bug. Any critter with half an instinct knows to run away when Roscoe lumbers into the room. And imagine Roscoe’s view of the matter–it would be the highlight of his year! A mouse hunt!
Let’s not bandy about here. Cats are instinctively hunters. Carnivores with a taste for blood. Roscoe wants to hunt. It’s in his genes. Why deny him then, when I have to go to the pet store for food anyways and a mouse would only cost a dollar or two?
You can’t convince me this is cruel to the mouse. Maybe if I snatched a field mouse from the wild and whisked it away to my apartment of horrors for Roscoe’s amusement, well, then you could call it cruel. But the pet shop mice have no memories of freedom. They were bred for one purpose: to die as food for another animal. Their sole contribution to the world is as a link in the food chain.
I once dated a girl who would get outraged when people would bug her about not clearing all the food from her plate. “You know there are starving people in Africa who would slit their mother’s throat for the rest of that rice pilaf,” they’d say. She’d look right back at them and give a physics lesson. “Really now? How would that work? Are you going to put my uneaten rice in a box and mail it to Nigeria? Because I don’t think anyone in Africa gives a shit about the rice on my plate right now.”
Same goes for the pet shop mouse. Let’s call him Albert. Ol’ Albert’s a goner whether I buy him for Roscoe or not. If I don’t bring him home, someone with a snake is going to buy him and it will lead to the same inevitable and brutal end for Al. At least setting him loose in my apartment gives him a sporting chance at life. I’m not sure whether a feeder mouse has the same savvy for self-preservation as a feral mouse, but Albert’s odds of surviving the apartment must dwarf his survival odds in a terrarium. You want to talk cruelty? Talk to the snake owners first.
My roommate isn’t completely opposed to the idea–much to his credit–but he did propose a modification. Why not put the mouse in a hamster ball and let it run about in the relative plastic safety? Roscoe still gets to chase a mouse, but the quarry never has a chance to be maimed or to escape. I hate this idea. It’s like going to the rodeo and calling yourself a cowboy afterwards–participating in a copy of a copy of the real thing and confusing that with an authentic experience. Not to mention using a hamster ball is unsportsmanlike. Neither the cat nor the mouse can win, so what’s the fun in that? There are winners and there are losers in this world. It’s a cruel feature of a capitalist system, and we all need to get more comfortable with that.
Others attempting to foil my plan have asked: “What happens if Albert gets away?” Then congratulations to Albert! In the first genuine challenge of his life he emerged victorious! We should all be so fortunate. He’s probably a goner when the alley cats catch his scent, but hey, we’re all bound to lose eventually. At least Albert made a good show of it. A related concern is that Albert might get behind an appliance, set up a little home among some cozy electrical wiring, and start a family. As cute as the image is, that would take two mice. It’s possible my detractors are confusing mice with aphids, which reproduce through parthenogenesis–a single aphid can mother an entire colony. I oppose releasing aphids in my apartment just for that reason.
It’s bloodsport. I would enjoy the crap out of watching Roscoe hunt a mouse; I won’t deny that. Is it so wrong? Professional boxing matches pay two grown and dignified humans to punch the living daylights out of each other for twelve rounds and no one seems to mind, so watching blood spurt for entertainment must not be that taboo. I can hear the retort already: “But that’s between consenting adults.” So? You’ve probably eaten meat or worn an item made out of leather recently. A living thing had to die so you could stuff your maw or look fashionable, so apparently even overt brutality can be tolerated so long as the ends are delicious or pretty. Why shouldn’t Roscoe be allowed the same opportunities?
Call me 90% convinced now.
God help those of you without sensitive teeth. I don’t know how you all choose a toothpaste. I’ve made a series of poor dental decisions over the years, so for me the decision is much simpler. I use Sensodyne, because that stuff is like a dentist in a tube, but even this simplified decision leads to problems.
See, I don’t know enough about toothpaste to make much of a decision. Even Sensodyne has its varieties–maximum cavity protection formula, extra whitening, repair and protect, and fresh breath. I don’t know what that means. On a very literal level I understand that the whitening variety will gradually whiten my teeth; I’m not that daft. But how does it compare to the others? If I choose to repair and protect my teeth, will they gradually turn a dull yellow? Or if I choose to avoid cavities, will I suffer from bad breath? If I want I don’t want to offend people with my breath, will I have to embrace a life of unprotected teeth?
There’s a “Find the Right Sensodyne” feature on the product’s web site, and even after using it several times I’m no closer to feeling comfortable with my toothpaste decisions. I remember on the wall of my dentist’s office as a child was a poster offering the only real advice I’ve had from an official source on the matter: the poster was of a smiling cartoon molar holding a gleaming toothbrush that whacked away the green plaque monsters. Which Sensodyne does that?
This is one of the few times I’m thankful to have an unfilled cavity in my mouth, because I don’t know what I’d do if the toothpaste decisions became more complicated. Crest offers a “3D Whitening” variety. Isn’t every toothpaste three-dimensional? So is everything else in this world. Another variety promises baking soda and peroxide with a tartar protection stripe, but I can only assume it’s the passe two-dimensional kind. There’s “Complete Multi-Benefit Extra White + Scope Outlast” in Lasting Mint flavor. That seems to make all the other varieties obsolete, but I can’t say for certain.
Whatever happened to toothpaste? Plain, simple, gets-the-job-done-with-no-frills toothpaste? In an age of branding and product diversification, I’m not equipped to make the hard decisions anymore. And I’m reasonably certain my teeth are suffering for it.
I wish it were only toothpaste that confused me. Weather forecasters often get a bit of hell for incorrectly predicting the weather, but I have trouble even why they get it right. What, after all, does a 60% chance of rain mean? For some of you the answer to that question must be so obvious that I’m coming across as an idiot right now. That may be true, but hear me out! In this age of technological marvels we now have hourly forecasts. The weatherman can tell me that there will be a 60% chance of rain between 3:00 and 4:00 AM this morning. But does that mean there’s a six-in-ten chance that it will rain at all? Or that 60% of the amount of rain will fall compared to a 100% chance? Or that we can expect rain for roughly thirty-six minutes during that hourly span?
“No Trespassing After Dark” signs are another notion that’s confused me for years. Trespassing, in itself, is a bad thing if the Lord’s Prayer is to be believed–”forgive those who trespass against us.” So a notice that’s designed to tell you when trespassing is in effect should be phrased affirmatively: Trespassing After Dark. Otherwise it makes the sign seem like it’s telling you it’s okay to be hanging around after dark–it’s not trespassing! Cops and I have quibbled over this one before, and I always lose.
I’m badly equipped for these modern times. Nothing more profound than that today.
I’ve been noting a trend in recent weeks, and it’s time to start talking about it.
Back in law school, in college, before then even, there was a rhythm and flow to life. Finals came around every four months with a break in between. With each semester ending, I had another page of pointy letters proclaiming my achievements. I walked to classes or at least had time during the day to take in the seasons. I felt like I was a part of the world. I was happy then.
Nowadays there’s nothing to punctuate the days. I work in an office building on the fifth floor. The windows don’t open, the air conditioning is always a little too cold, and the lights are always too bright. The days are starting to blur together, and I’m no longer happy.
All that remains is the weekly cycle. My weekends are exciting. I embrace adventure. There’s fun to be had in the world, and when given a few days’ freedom I usually find it. Then Monday comes around. Monday isn’t so bad. I’m sad to be back in my cubicle, but sometimes the routine of the workweek is a welcome reprieve after pushing too hard on the weekend. But today is Tuesday, and tonight I have nothing left in the tank. I didn’t work particularly hard today. I’m not tired, but I’m not here either. Tomorrow will be worse. Come Thursday I’ll be angry by mid-afternoon. And by Friday I’ll need a couple of hours after work just to start feeling like myself again.
It wasn’t always this way. When I first started this job I was just thankful to have a steady paycheck after years of life as a broke student. Every couple months, right before I’d get completely fed up with whatever menial task I was assigned, something slight would change and that would be enough to keep me in my seat a little longer. Sometimes weeks would go by quickly. I’d occasionally even have fun at work. Not nearly so much fun as when I was a bartender or a treasure hunter, but a modicum nonetheless.
But I’ve been doing the same task since the beginning of the year, and the distances between shifts are shortening while the weekends feel farther apart. Time is at a premium during the weeks. I leave work at 4:30; I’m home by 5. If I go to bed at a reasonable hour I have six hours to do what I must. That sounds like an eternity, but it’s closer to a blink. Feed Roscoe, make dinner, pay my bills, do my laundry, pack a lunch. But those are only the necessities. I have a girlfriend who wants to see me, a waistline that demands exercise, and a mind that needs stimulating; all of these things take more time. What time remains to improve my life, to establish my law practice and create a future that doesn’t require me to go back to that hermetically sealed office the next day?
I’ve been trying to streamline my life. To pay my bills as quickly and as fearlessly as possible. To squeeze the ends of each day to make room for a bike ride or a few minutes doing crossword puzzles with Red. To write.
I’m losing the battle. Those precious seconds I’ve managed to save are being stolen by that horrible malaise that follows me home from work every day. It’s not just Fridays anymore. Even tonight, on a Tuesday, the only inspiration I can muster is to write a blog post complaining about work. And when Friday night finally comes, more of it is lost each week to recovering. One day soon enough that’ll extend into Saturday. Eventually a week will come when I won’t be able to get back to square one for Monday. I’m wearing down.
Maybe this is growing up. College doesn’t last forever, kid. Red tells me about her mom sometimes when I fall into a mood. She’s been working her own soul-sucking accounting job for more than a decade to provide for Red. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, without kids and with enough freedom to have a little fun once or twice a week. Maybe I just need to suck it up and learn to deal. After all, back when I worked as an expo at Don Pablo’s I spent my nights catching flaming fajita skillets with a dish towel. No one throws flaming skillets at me anymore, so I have to call my current position an improvement.
If this is growing up, it can’t be good for me. I once spent a few months working the fifteen percent struggle at Olive Garden. That was a shitty job. It wasn’t just the overheated server nooks or the constant demands for lemonade, salad, and breadsticks. It was the performing, putting on a pleasant, accommodating face for every table when all I wanted was a modest tip that would never come. To get a $1.15 tip on a $30 check, to stifle the outrage, and to hope for better on the next table.
You can’t take poor tips personally. There’s rarely any malice in bad tippers, only ignorance of a customary practice. So there’s no sense in getting butthurt about them. All you can do is turn off that part of you that takes pride in your work. Flip the switch off, even though you know you deserve better than hustling pasta for pennies, and cram it down into the darkest recesses of your soul until the shift is over. Forget pride; it only gets in the way when you desperately need to be a happy worker bee. Hope is even worse. Resign yourself to your fate. The tips will be bad, so enjoy it when a good one comes along. It’s the only way to preserve your sanity.
There’s a price to be paid though. It was a bartender at Olive Garden, Justin, that pointed it out: It’s a little harder to retrieve the tucked-away part each time.
I don’t know what this means for me tomorrow. I’ll go to work. I’ll do good work. I won’t be paid enough for it to pay off my debts. I won’t be recognized for what I do. Every day is the same, so there’s no reason to expect tomorrow will be different. Hope only leads to disappointment.
Do I swallow my pride, shut up, and click my buttons, knowing every time I do it will be harder to find my pride afterwards?
Or do I hold onto my pride, guarding it jealously, even though doing so makes me rage against the constant indignity of working for a company that treats the rank-and-file with contempt?
What proud beasts we once were!
The layoffs started Monday and finished by Wednesday. I know because the Boss Lady sent out an email on Wednesday: “Good morning, everyone. We have completed communication to all employees who were impacted by the reduction in force.”
I’ve never been through layoffs before. I pride myself on the diversity of my hustle, but up until now every regular paycheck I’ve drawn has been from a small company or a restaurant chain. Up until now if anyone I’ve known got axed, it’s because they were cheating tips or otherwise utterly useless. Not this week. These were good people. Maybe not the best at their jobs, but decent folks that can do competent work with a little nudging. And I don’t know where they go from here–who will hire their age, their pre-existing conditions, their adherence to an older tradition?
It’s downright terrifying. The ax missed me this time, but I won’t always be so lucky. I’m running scared. I want to take pride in my work, to put forth my best effort knowing that even if I’m not paid as much as I think I should make, well, it’s not because I haven’t proven I’m worth every dime I think I’m worth. But I think I’ve been performing for an empty audience. The Machine turns and grinds and turns and grinds, and all I’m doing is greasing it with my labors. One day the Machine will grind me.
And if I wasn’t convinced, then the Boss Lady had to send us her message. I’ve never seen a worse way to write “Breathe easy. The firing is over for now.” There’s an old joke: Why do lawyers write so terribly? Because all they read is other lawyers. Seems Boss Lady’s been boning up on her legal briefs.
Let’s see if we can turn something ugly into something beautiful. See, I’m glad she wrote that. There was more, of course, talking about how we all move forward from here. But the damage was done in those first two sentences, the thought crystallizing just as I came to the period: I no longer want my labors to benefit this woman. Before I’d been on the fence. No more.
The fundamental problem with working a nine to five is that it’s really the only job you can do. Our grandparents enjoyed the reliability this provided–my old Pop Pop was a heavy equipment operator from the day he married my grandmother to the day he retired. But for us, this newest generation of serfs, it’s a poorly-diversified investment. What happens when the job disappears? I went to law school, man; all the extra money I make goes into debt payments. I don’t keep a fat balance in my checking account for potential layoffs. The margin between making my rent payment and staring down an uncertain future comes down to the whim of the Boss Lady’s ax. That won’t do. So it’s time to embark on the grand adventure.
Writing, I find, has a certain power. It’s not enough to think an idea. Writing it down, declaring it to all those literate, takes an idea and transforms it into a guide. So I’m going to write that one more time: it’s time to embark on the grand adventure.
I’m 28 now. I’ve got a life to live ahead of me, so I need to start making the most of it. I’ve never been in a better position to seize opportunity. I have a license to practice law. I’m a good writer. I have a mind that works. I’m working hard to be more honest, to acknowledge my faults and take steps to improve.
There’s a saying around the poker table. After you’ve been playing for an hour, take a moment to consider the other players. If you don’t know which one’s the sucker, it’s you. Well, I’ve been drinking the corporate Kool-Aid long enough. I’ve been in my current position for a year now. They speak of potential promotions, of a career for all, of a bright and promising future. But I’m looking around the table and I can’t spot the sucker.
So it’s time to embark on the grand adventure. I’ve requested a move to the second shift, so I can rent a cheap office I’ve found and start offering my services to the world. I’m going to be tired, but it’ll be the good tired that comes from striving towards a better goal, which is a freedom from clicking the same damn buttons tomorrow, too.
It’s a terrifying prospect to blaze my own trail, but I know I can do it. Confidence doesn’t come to me easily, but in contemplating my private exodus I’ve discovered something absolutely incredible: I am loved.
I come from a stoic family so it’s difficult to write that. But I’ll do that again too for good measure: I am loved. And that makes all the difference.
I’ve dreamed about being rich as much as the next guy. Probably more so. I’ve taken a delight in thinking of all the ways I could describe my riches–stacking paper to the ceiling, Scrooge McDuckin’ it, debts paid in full–but even the most practical description is powerfully selfish, and I don’t care about money enough to be motivated. See, I place a premium on having a good time, which is shockingly inexpensive. Five dollars will buy sixty glow sticks and all the connecting pieces necessary to create a temporary masterpiece. Biking through the streets of Richmond costs nothing after the initial investment. Good company makes beer taste best. So despite my flights of fancy, I’ve never been much good at applying myself towards earning money.
But I believe I’ve found that motivation finally: love. Again, my stoic upbringing makes it hard to say that without snickering a bit. But I’m dead serious.
I went to my first Redskins game a couple weeks ago, and it was delightful. My family is from Northern Virginia. I remember being five, watching my Dad sing Hail to the Redskins with every touchdown during Super Bowl XXVI. I’ve kept the faith in the long, dark years of the franchise since. And now, finally, I’ve seen them play live.
You could barely call it a game. This was a preseason warmup against the Bills. By the second quarter Buffalo was playing an undrafted rookie quarterback that didn’t earn a single first down. But it was amazing to see–all the names I’d followed in the newspapers, these titans among men, on the field in front of me. Even from the upper deck they all seemed larger than life.
I brought my Dad. The thing to know is this: he didn’t say much during the game. See, not long after my folks divorced I moved in with my Dad. It was just the two of us until I transferred from community college to VCU, so we have a rapport. It’s a joy talking to my Dad. Half of what he says is a blatant lie (“Did I ever tell you about the time I sailed with Christopher Columbus?”), and the other half is stories about Lowe’s, where he works, but it’s a delight nonetheless. So when he sat through the game, quietly engrossed by the action on the field, I knew that he was having a good time–he was too busy experiencing the moment to bullshit around.
I hadn’t seen that before. And the more I think about it, the more I want to see it again. I want to take my father to Redskins games. Tickets aren’t cheap, so I’m going to need some serious hustle to make it a regular thing, but I want that. I love my Dad. I wasn’t an easy kid to raise, but he stuck with me the whole time. And here I am now, a lawyer with the potential if not the means to take my father to Redskins games. I want that.
I don’t give a shit about diving through a vault full of gold coins. Almost every day my father would tell me “Dan, you’re smart enough to do anything you set your mind to.” I can’t thank him enough. Even season tickets on the 50-yard-line would only be scratching the surface. So with these words I set my mind to taking my father to Redskins games, because what I really want to say is, I love you, Pops, and know that he knows I mean it sincerely. Because I know that he loves me, and I find strength in it every day; I hope it works both ways.
I haven’t been completely truthful. Taking Popsicle to a Redskins game wasn’t my idea. It was Red’s.
I’m in love with Red. I’m in love with Red. I feel silly writing that–chalk that up to my stoic upbringing too–but I want to shout it from the rooftops.
Before we go further, let’s drop some baggage. I’ve acquired my fair share along the way. It’s hard to write how much I love Red because she’s not the first woman I’ve said those words to. Maybe I loved them, maybe I didn’t–I’ll leave that one to the philosophers. But this will go on the Internet, and they might read this, and they might be hurt to see me so in love with someone else, and I don’t like causing hurt, so I’m reluctant to write.
It’s time to be done with that with one small violation of Rule #4. (More on that later.) To all the women I once loved: Goodbye. I now want to devote my efforts towards one woman, and that means I can’t spend my time thinking about any of you. I hope you all find a love like I’ve found with Red. And I beg you, if you ever loved me, let me go. I make no apologies for falling head over heels for the finest woman to ever come my way. If reading this causes you pain, I remind you that this is the Internet and exits are quite literally everywhere.
Oh, my darling Red. She knows me better than I know myself. It was her idea to take Popsicle to the Redskins game, and it’s her encouraging that makes me write tonight. Oh Red.
Since high school I’ve carried a musette bag from World War II. I spent a day writing my favorite poems on it in Sharpie, a few words of beauty on an item once in combat. Among them these, from John Masefield: I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and star to steer her by.
In Red I’ve found both, my tall ship and my star to steer her by.
If making money for money’s sake is hard, try writing just to write. But I think I’ve found my muse there, too. See, even after discarding the exes I’m still blessed with a big family full of love, and I’d like them to know me better. I’m not good at talking about myself, so they don’t know me particularly well. So I commit these thoughts to text. This is me speaking. I love you all dearly, even if I don’t know how to say it most of the time.
With my coming adventures I’ll be busier than ever. So I write for my family. I want you to know me, because I think you’re all some of the greatest people I’ve ever met, and it is my finest privilege to count myself among you. So I write. This is your little brother, your stealth son, your fancy lawyer. You are forever in my thoughts, even when I disappear on my adventures. I love you and I miss you.
And, let’s be honest, I write for myself. The world is a confusing place. I don’t know how everyone else deals with it, but I’ve found there’s a certain magic to writing. Maybe, just maybe, I can harness it and create something amazing.
Tomorrow is Labor Day. I am ready to begin my labors. To buy tickets to Redskins games. To clear this pile of debt from my name. To build a life with my Red. I stare down my uncertain future with confidence knowing I have the strongest foundation from which to launch my adventures and seek my fortunes–I am loved. I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, and I love you too.
Oh, the quandary!
Which piece will you choose to add to the Monopoly cast? Now’s the chance! Hasbro, in a rare combination of profit-mongering and democracy, is steering its monkeying of a venerable game through public demand. Your vote decides which of the five contenders is added. Will you choose the guitar, the robot, the diamond ring, the cat, or the helicopter?
No contest. The robot wins. Look at his little mustache!
Alas, there is a balance to life. With birth comes death, and so the public faces a far more torturous decision: which distinguished piece will, ahem, make room for the addition?
The problem in choosing to kill off a piece is that it’s hard to know what merits elimination. The eight classic Monopoly pieces show no pattern or system; it’s hard to fathom what made the original game designers choose these things from all the objects in the universe. The battleship, the car, the Scottie dog, the top hat, the old shoe, the iron, the wheelbarrow, and the thimble. A perfect assortment of whatever. None of them belong together, so I could never see them apart.
I never chose the wheelbarrow as my piece, especially as a kid, because its three-pointed stance makes it the most difficult piece to keep upright and pointed down-range. (I demanded a certain order to the world as a child. Still do, really.) But my peculiarities are hardly reason to vote for axing the little pewter drunkard. I kind of admire its happy-go-lucky, lay-here-if-I-want-to approach to traversing a square, square world. It’s as good as any other. The wheelbarrow, that is, but maybe the approach, too.
The thing about Monopoly is that it’s an inherently cruel game, so tempers are bound to flare and passions are going to swell and strong memories will most surely attach to the pieces rammed into family members’ eye sockets. In college I learned about so-called European style board games–like the Settlers of Catan–where all the players remain in the game and competitive until a winner is decided. They’re a ton of fun, and I’m glad they’re catching on more in the States. I majored in drinking and playing Settlers one semester. Monopoly is a decidedly American game. Only one player can emerge victorious, and to do so requires crushing the other players with real estate savvy and fortunate dice rolls. C’mon, folks, that’s guaranteed to hurt some feelings.
It’s American in another way: there are always unwritten rules. Every house plays with a slightly different set of rules, like whether you pay the fine before or after rolling to get out of jail, and when properties can change hands, and how quickly the next player can roll if someone should be demanding rent from the next player but that someone is in the kitchen making nachos for everyone. Every game is as much a political battle as it is a board game. Ah, America!
What, you say your family played it with smiling faces and a rule book handy? Bullshit.
We called it Family Game Night. This was back at the first house I can remember, the house on Greenwood Drive. With the enormous trees in all the yards; a glorious place to be a kid. I suppose we’re talking third grade, give or take. On alternating weekends Mr. Rick and his kids would come over and the dads would watch football or do whatever dads do while Ben and I would talk Orioles and compare baseball cards. Ben’s parents were the first I knew who divorced. And on the other weekends, on Sundays, we’d sit down and play a game together. Those game nights are the last memory I have of my–there should be a word for this, maybe “birthfamily”?–of all the people in my immediate family when I was born–sitting together, trying to love each other.
Sometimes we’d mix it up, a couple rounds of Mall Madness or a spin at The Game of Life. But for the few months Family Game Night lasted, the game of choice was Monopoly. $1500 to each player, choose your piece, roll the dice to see who goes first. Simple tasks on paper but far more difficult in execution. Who will give out the money? One of the players, one of those money-hungry, real estate-snatching, hotel-slavering players will sit in front of all the money in the game world, and he won’t occasionally slide a third hundo into his hands when he passes Go? Bullshit. Getting the banking job can set up a player for an easy victory in the right hands, so it’s not to be given up lightly.
I recall my brother Joe wanting to do the fun things that older brothers do on Sunday night, and hating being forced to play games with his dorky family. My parents would appease him by making him the banker, and I’ll be damned if he ever finished below par in a game. Just sayin’. He would choose the race car, I think because he wanted to get away.
Gamesmanship runs in the family. Back in high school I would carry Monopoly money in my wallet. It came in surprisingly useful. I never needed to tap into it while playing Monopoly, but I probably played a much bolder game with the safety net. And it had plenty of other purposes. My junior year I ran a brisk exchange in souls, and Monopoly money with a name penciled in made excellent vouchers for the hereafter. The gambit was simple: I’d offer some small but significant sum for someone’s soul, no more than a buck, and we’d create a bearer instrument on the Monopoly bank note–to the holder goes the soul. Free chocolate milk money, right? But nine out of ten would have trouble sleeping that night knowing they’d signed away their possible heavenly future for a song. (My sales pitch might’ve been a tad over the top.) The kid would come back, dollar in hand, asking for his soul back, but the soul market is volatile. They always trade higher the next day. I’d demand a fiver. I won’t say how many ponied up.
Gamesmanship, unfortunately, must’ve come from my mother’s side. My dad called it “playing cutthroat,” as in, “It’s no fun when you two play all god damn cutthroat,” referring to me and Joe. Like I said, Monopoly is a cruel game. To eventually get a winner, people have to start losing. It’s a basic principle of business: you must crush your competition and steal their assets to take on ever-larger competition. Halliburton, at least, but I dare you to call them unsuccessful.
My sister, usually playing with the dog, would invariably waste her money on low-percentage properties. She always liked the Chance card that read “Take a ride on the Reading!” so she’d buy up all the railroads she could, never learning they’re poor investments. She always lost, but we were awful to her. We’d try and encourage her to trade away the properties we needed to complete a set for a random sets of shiny bullshit and cash, knowing it was never enough to make up for what we’d steal back in rent on the improved properties. She, just in fifth grade, had a little trouble seeing as far through the game’s sequences as the boys. Gamesmanship! But then she’d start losing, tears would start flowing, and my dad would be furious. Those days he was never far from fury. I blame the DC commutes.
It didn’t help that our family rules created wild swings of fortune. Free Parking, by the rule book, is simply a place to rest your piece for a turn. Some houses like to put the fines paid from Chance and Community Chest cards into a pot in the center of the board, the proceeds to whoever lands on Free Parking. That wasn’t nearly enough for my family–What if you hit Free Parking on the first turn? So we’d sweeten the pot with $500. Every time Free Parking was emptied. Sometimes the pot would swell to more than the starting money, once players started building improvements and getting hit with taxes. A pauper to a prince with a roll of the dice. Whoever hit that kind of windfall could build hotels and squeeze the other players of every white and pink dollar. Strategy didn’t mean bupkis when piles of Monopoly money were involved. A very American game.
I feel the worst for my mom about the whole thing. I think Family Game Night was her idea, and she really wanted it to be a success. We’re all really interesting people, we five, and I think my mom hoped it would come out in us about a decade sooner than it did. At the very least, she wanted Family Game Night to be a lasting memory. That’s probably why we kept trying as long as we did. I can’t remember a pleasant round. I’m sure there were some nights that didn’t end in tears and accusations, but those two things are most of what comes to mind, and I wasn’t trying to remember.
A year later, sitting on couches in the family shrink’s office, we three kids would play Topple. It’s a balancing game. A five-by-five grid stands balanced on a post, and the players add chips to the grid until the whole thing topples. There’s some sort of point to it, but I don’t remember that part. What I remember is Joe and Emily putting their chips on extreme edges, trying to overbalance the thing. I’d use my turn every time to undo their damage.
At 9 years old, I didn’t get why they would play that way. Why try to ruin the game? Why did I have to waste my turn just so these jerks could keep screwing it up? It never occurred to me that I’d become the game. In family sessions, when we were supposed to talk about the game and other things, I’d pull my sweater over my head and ignore what was happening. Tried to, at least.
The family was breaking up over those years, although it took its sweet time circling the drain. It wasn’t until just after Christmas in seventh grade that the parents pulled the plug on their marriage. We reacted to the news more honestly than we will react to anything else in our lives. Joe stormed down to his room in the basement and punched a hole in his door. Emily shut herself in her bedroom and called her friends. I sat exactly where I was for the rest of the day and into the night. I just didn’t feel like getting up anymore.
The family market is as volatile as the soul market, forever inflating. One ended. More began. My dad lives alone, but he’s not lonely; he’ll be fine. My mom remarried and seems to have found some measure of peace. Emily married Jesus. Joe found himself a wife and started a little family; my niece is adorable. I’m immensely happy for all of them. It’s making the holidays a little challenging though, especially this year.
I was born into a family of five people. One by one they drifted apart and found new people to make memories with and find comfort in; this seems the way of things. I’m still on the market. I haven’t found a new family yet, and the family I love the most, the family I remember best, has been gone for more than half my life. And what’s more, I can’t change. When I think family, I see five faces. And my last memories of that family together are these memories of us playing games.
The problem in killing off a family is that it’s hard to know what merits elimination. Our lives together show no pattern or system; it’s hard to fathom what made the Original Game Designers choose these things from all the objects in the universe. A perfect assortment of whatever. None of us belong together, so I could never see us apart.
Ah, hell with it. Get rid of the wheelbarrow.