the inconvenient "but"

My readership is less than half American these days, so a primer: one of the U.S.'s founding fathers and first presidents, Thomas Jefferson, wrote our Declaration of Independence and was undoubtedly the most important mind this nation has ever produced. Although he opposed slavery, he owned slaves and even impregnated at least one, which causes angst here. We want to lionize him, but then there's that nagging, inconvenient "but."

My favorite walk in Washington D.C. starts at the Jefferson memorial. That beautiful open-air marble dome, that view abutting the Potomac, cannot be bettered, and now it has a wondrous view of the King memorial reflecting across the water. From there I head north along the Potomac's bank, a lovely, tree-lined route recently featured in the opening scenes of The Winter Soldier. It winds through the understated but lovely Roosevelt memorial and stops at the spectacular new King memorial, a few hundred meters from where he gave his most famous speech.

Some have criticized the King memorial for how angry he looks, but I am not among them. He looks stern. It works.

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What I didn't expect was a delightful bit of positioning. If you follow MLK's eyeline, he's glaring across the water at Jefferson for all eternity.

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does a trannie pee in the woods?

People's sexual orientation isn't something I think much about—not unless I'm hanging out with a gay friend and need an insult. Mostly this is because I don't care. I have higher priorities. There are far more important reasons to hate people.

If I do think about it, it's alien to me. They say orientation is a spectrum, and I accept that on faith. Mine is most decidedly a single point on that line, and from here it's hard to imagine orientation being a range of points. But I have comparable difficulty imagining anyone enjoying peach schnaps or Kanye West. Yet here we are.

When the bear bar was filled with fat bearded guys, I was of course not surprised. Biker jackets, flannel shirts and testosterone abounded—also not a surprise. But everyone watching, delighting in, and squealing at RuPaul's Drag Race? I have to say that's a surprise. These guys? That show? Can someone kindly draw me a map from the Harleys parked outside to RuPaul's trannies?

a bear actually walked into a bar

The long-threatened trip to a bear bar took place last night. As Mike and I were about to enter the establishment in Seattle's gay district, I paused under the rainbow flag to put on surgical gloves.

"Okay, I'm ready."

"You dick. I am not taking a punch for you."

I took the gloves off.

I regret to inform the readership that no drinks were sent to my table. So it's official: there is no demographic on the planet to whom I am attractive.

I did attract my share of stares from fat, hairy guys, especially when Mike left me alone. They weren't making eye contact. It was like I was some oddity they were trying to figure out. They stared unblinkingly and without care. Guys are creepy. How do women put up with this 24/7?

"It helps to be attracted to them," says Allie.

needy

Anna checked in this weekend, and conversation immediately turned to relationships. Her divorce isn't yet filed, yet she's already thinking about husband #2. Not the best of signs.

I tried to coach her up. I used myself as an example. "See, being in a relationship isn't one of my priorities. Not in and of itself. If I meet someone in whom I'm really interested, then my priority is to be in a relationship."

"So basically, you never want to get married," she replied.

Wow. Um, no, that's not even a tangent to what I'm saying. "No, that's not what I'm saying. I actually like the idea of being married. I like the idea of all the wonderfulness that would have to happen between here and there. All I'm saying is that when I meet someone, only then do I start thinking about a relationship. With her. Specifically her. But I don't sit around pining for a hypothetical next woman. That's how you end up forcing a bad relationship."

"So right. You don't ever want to get married."

Anyone want to get married first and iron out the details later? Do I ever have the woman for you.

farewell, my forever friend

You've survived four girlfriends, 18 Football Weekends, five room-paintings, countless lawn-mowings, the Bleach Incident of 2006, and hurtful stares from complete strangers. But mostly, you've survived the girlfriends. It wasn't easy. You're welcome.

This is your eulogy. You've had two head-holes for several years now, and the real one has long been dwarfed by the new one. You've given me your warmth and, finally, your structural integrity. You are physically incapable of staying on my body anymore, so I'm afraid it's time for a proper burial. Now, at the end, I'm grateful that it's me pulling your plug and not some fleeting girlfriend who makes fun of you to her physical therapist while she's banging him reverse-cowgirl-style. That would have horrified me. You deserve a better death.

Note to reader: in the second picture, the shirt is not lying crumpled on the floor. I'm actually wearing it.

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paranoia will employ ya

In my line of work, all work is digital. We store our work in giant databases. When the database goes kerplunk, you damned well better have reliable backups. I've been royally fucked in the past by relying on other people backing up my stuff, so when I built my company, I entrusted backups to the only person I've ever truly loved. Me.

"What's that grinding sound?" I thought last weekend. Something in my closet sounded like gravel in a garbage disposal.

That was the hard drive. All data was lost.

Eep.

An intense 24 hours later, I'd recovered all the data from the offsite backups, and nothing was lost. With great relief, we all tried to remember the last time we'd seen a happy ending to this situation. No one ever had.

"Finally," sighed Mark, "John's pathological paranoia works fer me instead of a-ginst me."

How's that working out for you? Are they throwing their legs open as expected?

You go wow some more. I'm going to shop for wedding gifts.

my pleasure

"Thank you for your integrity and candor," wrote the prospective client I had just turned down. The project was set up to fail, and I'd said so when declining their business.

I reread his email. "What an odd sentence," I thought.

Then it occurred to me: never in my life has someone thanked me for my candor. Thanked me for my silence, sure...

resistible link of the day

You'll note that the link retains its "unvisited" appearance.

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still hurts

Just once, I'd like to google whatever moderate physical discomfort I'm in and find out that it's something other than untreatable, terminal cancer.

old

I awoke yesterday with a twinge in my rib cage. I chuckled. How did I hurt that in my sleep? Then I stood up.

Holy hell. 24 hours later, I can still barely lift my right arm. It feels for all the world like a cracked rib, but how?

There once was a time when I knew damned well how I'd injured myself, and it was usually an awesome story involving basketball, cows, power tools or my older brother's sadism. Now, injuries involve breathing.

A couple of you asked for examples of un-losable battles I've lost. I can't believe one person is interested in this, let along a couple. But okay, here's one that's gnawed on your butt perpetually for decades.

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This is called a modal message box. You can't do anything else in the program until you dismiss it. They are very handy for seizing the user's attention. Naturally, this led to annoying abuses. Remember wanting to strangle the people who inflicted this on you?

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In the software industry, everyone argues that their bullshit performance-review bullet is of critical importance. By 2003, they were driving you insane with modal messages. Using your computer was like playing a relentless game of whack-a-mole. Users hated them. I hated them. All agreed: something had to be done. That something? Get rid of all modal dialog boxes because users hate them.

Me, 2003: "Uh...all of them? How about just the 90% that don't need to be modal?"

Yes, users hate their overuse. But sometimes, rarely, you still gotta seize the user's attention. My arguments fell on deaf ears, and that generation of sneering child-designers gave us innovations like the Internet Explorer Information bar. You don't like message boxes? Us neither. That's why we make messages invisible now. And thus was the era of "Why the fuck isn't this web page working?" born.

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The Information bar was a failure, of course. A single usability test would have revealed the obvious: it wasn't discoverable. But the next generation of sneering child-designers had the magic fix! Cram it on the other edge of the screen, even more out of the user's eyeline! Whoot!

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Then every 12 year old with a laptop started developing apps, and all pretense of usability has long since departed the Earth. Much as I stopped expecting people to write with some semblance of grammar, I have given up this war. Three stacked modal message boxes were the death blow.

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Fighting this fight is like trying to bail out a vast reservoir of stupidity with a colander.


dear beaten down guy at Apple

I know you exist. You always do.

When they were planning on foisting iOS7 upon the world, you were the guy in the room who said "Uh. It doesn't really make sense to dim the screen when they open the control that sets screen brightness. It's a pretty effect and all, but they'd have to close the control just to see what they'd set!"

I know you said this. Of course you did. It is a self-evident truth. And I know you were shouted down by a stampede of sneering child-designers who know better than the preceding generations of sneering child-designers. They know they know better because they took a vote amongst themselves. The only thing they are more in agreement about is that you just don't get it.

I just wanted to say I'm sorry, brother. I've been that guy. It's tough to be dismissed by those flaunting the seemingly opposing tendencies of smugness and vomitous incompetence. Congratulations on your self-control. Now bend them over your knee and beat them with a switch.

Solidarity,
John

the content of their characteristic

I'm perusing some media from a new client, yet another Fortune 500 tech company. They have a particularly gruesome file-naming scheme for their stock photos.

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LatinoWomanUsingTablet.jpg [sic]
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I feel all warm and fuzzy.

No, wait. Queasy. I feel warm and queasy.

knowing thyself

I filtered for "unpublished status" when I was declassifying posts a few weeks ago. I found a lot of half-cooked, abandoned posts. I found several that would have had Microsoft lawyers eight feet up my butt. And I found a couple of mere-minutes-after-romantic-rejection outpourings of the heart.

My god, I'm a whiny bitch when I get rejected. Like, teenage girl whiny.

And not 19, either. 13.

gay old time

Karyn is 24 and a sweetheart. A peninsula girl, she never considered college and has settled into her forever-life of cleaning houses. A lazy man, I exploit that. My sloth exceeds my threshold for filth.

Over the weekend she asked if we could have dinner to talk about her life, particularly her relationship with 27 year old Bobby. He's jobless and aimless and mooching off her, a situation excruciatingly familiar to me. Five minutes into her spiel, I was telling her what her life is like, what she's feeling, and how he reacts.

"And how does he rationalize that he contributes as much to the household as you do? He occasionally cooks dinner and works on the cars?"

"Are you...a genius?" she asked with genuine astonishment.

No ma'am, I am not. Guys are just really, really consistent.

After far too long, conversation eventually turned to me. She asked about the flowered champagne flute she's cleaned around a hundred times. I told her about my fake wedding to Elan, and how we have matching flutes.

She looked uncomfortable. Finally, she confessed: all of the housecleaners at her service think I'm gay.

My first, unspoken thought: considering how many of them are attractive young women, this buoys me with confidence that I am a stealthy leerer indeed.

My second thought: why? Their reasoning:

  • My house is nicely decorated. Okay, I guess I understand that, but I would venture that this says more about their SOs' Harley Davidson plaques than it does about my sexuality.
  • The champagne flute. Why this would have to be from a gay wedding, I do not understand, but apparently a solitary champagne flute struck these women as gay.
  • I never hit on them. Charming. The answer here lies not in me but in yourselves, sweethearts.
  • My guestroom has two pairs of slippers and two bathrobes. Karyn could not explain the logic, but this was apparently considered a smoking gun. Because, you know, robes and slippers in a guest room couldn't be for guests. They must be for me and my partner. My secret partner. Who must be gay. The slipper fits!

Who wouldn't hit on women who are fueled by such intellectual horsepower? Gayness: confirmed.

the final insult

For my last night in DC, I stayed in a motel near the airport. As I checked in, the staff was bantering and bickering, and the cute clerk was trying to browbeat the maid into working her day off. It was a lively work scene, and I joined right in. I implored the maid not to cave in to the guilt trips.

The clerk made a point of telling me later that she had prevailed.

"She caved?!" I said. "Why?!"

"I'm...just...that...cute!" she chirped. "I get my way. A lot."

I groaned and wrinkled my face in disgust. "No one's that cute."

"I am."

"No. You're really not."

The clerk eyed me for a moment. "OK, I'll prove it," she said with a sly smile. She amped up the wattage. She was absolutely luminous. "You should ask me out tonight."

Uh. No.

"C'mon," she said, smiling and batting her enormous Disney-character brown eyes.

A man can only take so much. We are not practiced at turning down cute twice. Once was a modern male miracle. So I took the bait.

"OK. "Wanna go out tonight?"

She broke eye contact and went back to work. "Nah. You're way too old for me."

the white house

While in DC, I toured parts of the ground and second floors of the White House. There were no interior photos allowed, sadly. Security was tight, in that half-assed, post-9/11 American way that manages a hassle factor of 10 and a security factor of 2. I was scanned and sniffed, and then I was funneled back outside, where I walked within easy reach of the people who had yet to be scanned and sniffed.

Like most everything else on my trip, the White House interior is a recreation. The original structure was weakened by the British setting fire to it, and those charred joists had endured all manner of abuse since, including notching for innovations like plumbing and electricity. By the time Truman's piano punched a hole in the ceiling, the interior had to go. And so everything was gutted except for the interior walls.

"Here," I solemnly thought, "Is an actual simulation of the actual floorboards that Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, and TR actually walked."

Chills.

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bacterial culture

Google Images has changed the way I photograph vacations. Why would I take a crappy photo of the Capitol building when I know there are superior, 12MB wallpapers of the exact same shot available? So instead, I snapped the weird stuff.

At Ford's Theatre, I couldn't decide which was more tasteful: the Hard Rock Cafe next door, or Lincoln's Waffle Shop across the street. C'mon, people, at least throw us a Shoppe.

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You can tell it's Chinatown because of the ancient Shang dynasty Panera.

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In Gettysburg, I discovered that Lincoln was wrong. We can dedicate, consecrate, hallow this ground.

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Apparently one DC architect had heard about the fudge.

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Historical irony, defined.

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And finally, from Primanti's restaurant in Pittsburgh comes the Ben Roethlisberger Memorial.

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I'm still entertaining the notion of working in Pittsburgh for a year. Thanks to my landing a White House tour when I was expecting to be in New York, my vacation plans were shattered and I decided to spend a middle two days in the 'Burgh.

Waking up in DC, I dropped my wet toothbrush on the hotel room carpet next to my bed. I entertained myself with the "How much money would it take for me to put that back in my mouth?" game. More than most countries' GNP, I decided. Thus did I stop at a DC drugstore on my way to Pittsburgh. I was buying my toothbrush when I spotted a tube of KY jelly.

"I'm going to need that tonight," I sighed.

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Driving in Pittsburgh is my nemesis. I don't think a single street runs north-south or east-west, and they meet at bizarre angles. The map looks like the city's planners threw wet spaghetti at the wall and said "build that." Worse, if you make a mistake, you are well and truly screwed. I've spent hours upon hours trying to recover from wrong turns there. Once for Football Weekend, I suggested to Bubba that we not even rent a car this time. "Let's just cab everything," I said.

"No," he snapped, still butthurt from our last Pittsburghian vehicular analcide. "I want to slay The Beast."

We didn't.

• • •

Freshly arrived, I was walking across Penn Ave when a passing car stopped in front of me and a guy rolled down his window. "Fuck you, man!" he screamed, emphasis on the fuck, as if he wanted to be sure no one thought he said he loved me.

Surprised, I pointed to myself. "Fuck me, man?"

Impatient with my stupidity, he used his forehead to point to a guy behind me. "No, fuck him, man."

"All right then," I said, continuing on my way.

• • •

I checked out my prospective yuppie apartment and the upscale restaurant next door. I knew it had a cigar bar, so in I went. I expected to see a bunch of 30ish Google employees in hockey jersies pretending to smoke cigars. What I got instead was a time warp. Wearing the slacks and jacket I packed to wear at the White House, I was woefully underdressed. I had stepped back in time to the 1920s. Everyone was in a suit. Everyone. Packing the mahogany room and its leather furniture were men and women smoking cigars, sipping brandy, and talking business and politics. I asked a 60ish guy if I could sit at the long table he occupied by himself. He said he was expecting others, but would I please join them. He asked for my story and introduced himself as Bobby. As his friends trickled in, he graciously introduced me to each of them.

"You a Pollack?" he asked, beaming with a cigar clenched in his teeth. I said yes. He pointed to himself and his friends. "Wop, wop, hebe, kyke. Welcome." Everyone nodded their warmest greetings.

"What's the difference between a hebe and a kyke?" I said, genuinely confused. They laughed at my question, but they didn't answer it. When the final friend, a black guy, joined us, I was both grateful and rueful that he'd missed the ethnic slur round-robin.

We talked and drank, and they told me all about their lives, their wives, the strippers they have known. And of course, about living in Pittsburgh. When I said how much I hate Roethlisberger, they regaled me with stories about what an insufferable prick the guy is to locals. ("Not any more," one guy added. "The Stillers clamped down on him. No one ever sees him anymore.") At one point Bobby waved over a city councilor and introduced him to me, saying if I was going to live in this district, I simply had to know Timmy. I puffed my cigars and marveled at how I'd traveled back in time 90 years by simply walking through a door.

"So how long," I asked all assembled, "will it take me to learn how to drive here? This town is my nemesis."

"It's everyone's nemesis," they groaned in chorus. Bobby rolled his eyes with empathy. "At least 60 years. I'll let you know if I ever figure it out." They all told spectacular driving stories. I told them about the KY.

We, the brotherhood of butthurt, bonded.

two DCs

I spent a lot of my time in DC thinking about race. Part of that was natural and most welcome. I'd left the Northwest, where clusters of lily white people prattle importantly about diversity in lieu of practicing it, and immersed myself in actual diversity.

Within hours of landing, I went drinking with a guy I met at my hotel. "I know a place," he said. "C'mon." As I listened to him complain about having to pay for his son's wedding, I marveled at the speed with which I'd made a friend. This would be typical of my whole trip. People were engaging me in more than pleasantries and looking me in the eye, and a lot of their faces, including Dad's, were black. I sipped my drink and pretended to care about his kid's wedding and felt really, really homesick. I would spend the rest of my trip trying to sort out what the racial component is of my homesickness. I'm still not sure. It's all tangled up.

• • •

I'm far more sure that there's a creepy, unsettling segregation going on in DC. Oh, not with the people, although there's probably that too—in the exhibits. The Air and Space Museum cannot feature the Tuskegee Airmen with the rest of the World War II exhibits; they are off in the discrete black wing. Likewise with every other black American historical artifact and figure. They are all in separate black exhibits. The more it went on, the itchier I got. By the time I came across the black section of the Presidential portrait gallery, it was impossible not to think about segregation.

(And no, it's not Obama's portrait. It was a bunch of people I've never heard of and whose inclusion I found utterly mystifying.)

I'm certain these separate exhibits are well-meaning. I'm sure it's acquiescing to demands and/or pandering. Motivation aside, though, I couldn't help but wonder what the practical difference is between this and Jim Crow. "Sure, we'll give yu'uns an exhibit. Raght ovah here in the corner," I heard a ball-scratching redneck sneer before spitting at their feet.

DC: righting a wrong

Last week I took my first planned time off in 3.5 years.

When work slowed to a trickle and I realized this was possible, I asked myself where can I go where being alone will be a plus? I immediately thought of Washington DC. I would right a great wrong. I last went with the Approval Whore. She was visibly bored by anything that interested me. I burned many a calorie trying to balance my own history-geekdom with her show-ponydom, and the results were unsatisfying. This culminated in my skipping the Air and Space museum in favor of antiquing in Alexandria.

Skipping. The. Air. And. Space. Museum.

And thus did I traipse the National Mall at my own pace, visiting exhibits without compromise, leaving when I damned well felt like it. All these years later, I could feel her absence. What a pleasure to indulge my interests for five minutes without someone making a grand show of being bored. All these years later, and I was suddenly awash in gratitude for her absence.

• • •

My early impression was just how many of the "historical artifacts" I was seeing were recreations. Not a single joist in Ford's Theatre is original, and the flags and furniture that adorn Lincoln's booth are all bullshit. Every question's answer was the same.

"Is that the rocking chair Lincoln was using?"
"No, that's in Detroit. But this is very similar!"
"Is that the bed Lincoln died in?"
"No, that's in Chicago. But this is very similar!"

DC is filled with fake documents and artifacts. Even the White House was gutted to its outer walls in 1952. There are no floorboards that Jefferson paced. It was around the time I noticed the abundant electrical outlets in Ford's Theatre that I started to wonder why I was even there. To occupy roughly the same spacial coordinates as historical events?

kill switch

My mom taught me to tune women out entirely. This got me through my teen years relatively sane, but when I started dating women, it became a bit of an issue. And when I started working for 'em, it became life threatening.

"John, did you reorganize the requests?"

"Why would I have done that?"

"Because I asked you to yesterday."

"You most certainly did not."

"God! Yes I did! And you nodded and 'uh-huhed' me the whole time, and then when I asked, you repeated it all back to me."

"That doesn't sound familiar."

When I found this conversation recurring, of course, I saved my career (and doomed my relationships) by learning to listen to women. The only artifact of my onetime disability is if a woman, probably Dorkass, begins a sentence with "You know what your problem is?" Bam. My brain hits the kill switch on my ears. You could hold a $1000 bill in front of my face, and I wouldn't be able to repeat what followed "is."

money or charyibdis

I chased Allie's kid Lily around my house. She was on roller blades, and I was snatching cameras and binoculars out of her path, until finally, everything valuable I own was in my hands.

"How about a cupcake?" I offered.

I should have said that sooner. The skating stopped, and soon I was mesmerized by how the child was trying to grind cupcake crumbs permanently into my countertops.

"Lily's decided she never wants to have kids."

Lily nodded. "They're too much work."

I was ruminating on her use of the third-person when Allie told her "You know, you're one of the reasons John doesn't have kids."

The child looked to me for confirmation. I nodded. "You're one of exactly eight reasons," I said, referring to the baby boom of 2005.

"You can't have nice things," I said. "And kids take up all of your free time."

"And then some," Allie corrected.

"And my god, the money."

"They cost a LOT of money," Allie agreed, and I began to wonder if the third-person problem was a genetic thing.

"It's a choice you make, really. Do I want kids, or do I want time and money?" I continued.

"I want money," Lily declared, the question stupid.

Good girl. Have another cupcake.

declassified: ernest's piano

When the job offer came from Microsoft, I was already a two-year contract writer there. The offer came from Ernest, with whom I had previously worked. I huddled in my office with Katrina. "It's a good offer," I told her. "But I neither like nor trust Ernest." Despite my misgivings, I took the job. Unbeknownst to me, John's First Law was born that day.

Never willingly associate with people of poor character.

I got what I deserved two years later, when he wrecked my team tried to wreck my career. I have carefully hand-picked every boss I've had in the years since. I suppose I could write about his meandering trail of slime, but really, in corporate America he's pretty unremarkable. Grandiose, petulant, lying. Worried about everything—except the customer or making the stock go up. You know him.

What is worth sharing, though, is that Ernest was what every woman and minority fears white male managers secretly are. For a time I "enjoyed" the status of being his good ol' boy; thus I similarly got to "enjoy" his racist, sexist, and (most especially) crude remarks.

He would lasciviously comment on the breasts of the woman he did not know I was dating. Yep. That was a laugh riot. When I would go on vacation, I would return to find that he'd hired some utterly talentless, unqualified young cupcakes and assigned them to my team. He encouraged me to play "hide the puppy" with Rochelle and graphically imagined her mouth...ugh. I can't finish that sentence. Lita, he wanted for himself, bent over his piano. She was dating my buddy at the time, but that wasn't even a speed-bump to Ernest's sleaze.

"Ugh. This is not cool," I snapped, walking out of his office.

He flashed his sleazy, snaggletoothed grin and doubtless planning to break up my team. Because as he would tell his boss, I'm not management material.

"That's child abuse!" I texted Katrina's 9 year old this morning. She readily agreed.

declassified: my melinda gates story

The world's wealthiest woman and I once had a "thing." True, she did not seem particularly aware of this fact, but let us not split hairs.

My office was once five feet from Melinda Gates'. In the manner of eating, drinking, peeing human beings in close proximity, we crossed paths several times a day. It didn't take me long to notice that normal polite acknowledgements of another human being's existence were not in her social arsenal. When we passed, there was no eye contact, no courtesy nod, no recognition. I was a passing air molecule to her, except not useful.

My peers reported similar non-treatment. Melinda acknowledged no one. In fact, women sitting in a bathroom stall could tell when Melinda entered the room, because a "cone of silence" immediately enveloped everyone.

Being a dork who didn't particularly value his job, I took it upon myself to force her to acknowledge my existence. I cheerfully said "good morning," which went unreturned. I sneezed. No "bless you." I startled her with loud noises. I did pratfalls. One time I held open a door for her, and she stood there, staring at her feet, refusing to go through. I'd say that the harder I tried, the harder she resisted, but the cold truth is that I doubt she could have picked me out of a lineup.

I left that job in abject failure, and soon Melinda left the company altogether. I figured that was the end of the story.

Six months into my new job, I returned to my old office to visit friends. As I whirled and left, I clobbered Melinda, who, visiting someone herself, had not seen me coming. In that staggering second, as I helped her regain her footing, a miracle happened: she made eye contact. True, it wasn't exactly warm, but I'll take it.

"Didn't you see me?" I chided.

She averted her eyes and drifted away.

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reader mail: the ex-wife

Distinguished Stank troll Marta asks why Nicole married a non-fundamentalist, a question I myself asked Nicole. She replied that she'd planned to deal with the religious differences after the wedding.

"Good call," I glared.

"Wasn't it, though?" she chuckled sadly.

• • •

Nicole and my fundamentalist sister-in-law Maria are still in touch. Longtime readers may recall that my sister-in-law has spent the last couple decades unironically fabricating stories about me lying. This is but one ripple in her vast reservoir of malice. Manufacturing drama is to Maria what eating doughnuts is to you and me. A high school graduate, she has an honorary doctorate in stirring shit. A Ph.Doody. Every time Nicole got remarried or pregnant, for instance, Maria leaked it to my sister, with the proviso "don't tell John. He might be weird about it." This was less a concern than a fervent hope.

Nicole is not immune from the stirring. The last time I spoke to Maria, she regaled me with a story designed to demonstrate how bonkers Nicole is. According to Marie, they were at an anti-abortion rally in Washington, DC. Hundreds of protestors poured across the street against the signal, and Nicole stood still on the curb, making them flow around her.

"C'mon, Nicole!" Maria urged, tugging at her. "Let's go."

Nicole refused to jaywalk with the horde. "No. I want to be a good witness."

Maria snorted this line derisively, as if that were the insane thing about their trip. But I give Nicole points for consistency. In the eyes of her god, jaywalking is as bad as ethnic cleansing.

declassified: when my life changed on the toilet

I married my high school sweetheart. Married at 20, divorced at 21. I haven't mentioned this much on Stank, not because it's a shameful secret but because over time, it's become one of my less significant relationships. As high school sweethearts should be, I reckon.

Nicole was indeed a sweetheart. A wonderful, loving, caring, funny, endlessly patient girlfriend who had to explain things like cuddling and trust to someone who'd never previously imagined them. I still have incredibly fond, grateful memories of the girl I married. Of my wife, not so much.

People ask me what possessed me to get married so young, and my answer is as unsatisfying to them as it was costly to us: I dunno. It seemed like the thing to do. Surely my mother dying had something to do with it, and her mother trying to prevent us from seeing one another certainly ratcheted up the need. (Kids, here's a pro tip: if your mothers factor into your top two reasons for getting married, you're too bloody young.)

In the months leading up to the wedding, months dominated by planning that wedding, Nicole made new friends. Close friends. I thought nothing of it. We were in college. Of course she made new friends.

The weirdness commenced on the honeymoon. (Another pro tip: if you can only afford a state park lodge for your honeymoon, you're too bloody young.) She was being weird in bed. After three years of eminently predictable sexual behavior, she was doing and requesting weird things. And not good weird. Weird weird. She was barking orders like a traffic cop. A tame example: she asked me to trim my fingernails. Mind you, there was no problem she was fixing. (Indeed, it is not possible to trim my fingernails any more.) She just cheerfully thought it was a good idea. It was an odd but surmountable request, in and of itself, but throw in a couple dozen more such oddities, and the "weird" feeling grew. Where's my girlfriend? I want to make fun of my wife with her.

Soon nature called. I found myself sitting on toilet, looking at a paperback book she'd left behind. The Act of Marriage, a Christian guide to sex. Wincing, I gingerly opened it. I gasped. I turned its pages with increasing urgency. On them, I found the entire history of my Week of Weird. This was her playbook, her incredibly dull playbook, and I'd been unwittingly running its plays.

"Ask him to trim his fingernails," the authors intone. I slammed the book shut and stared at the floor tile.

All these years later, I remember every detail of that bathroom. Adrenaline and heightened senses will do that to you. I sat there a long time. I feared that I didn't know my new bride as well as I had a week earlier.

The worry was well-founded, as the new friends were all rollicking fundamentalists. That is not me. I thought I'd married a normal Episcopalian, in her normal Episcopalian church with its wine and cheese parties, but within days I was being dragged off to a rollicking charismatic church with arm waving and tongue-speaking. After one interminable sermon about how man's law is God's law (premise: "give unto Caesar what is Caesar's"), she told me to drive slower. Speeding is violating God's law, and since all sin is equal to the Lord, my driving 45 in a 35 was morally equivalent to murder.

What. The. Fuck.

At the time, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for protesting an evil regime. I carefully asked my wife if he was going to hell for this. That, she could not say for certain, but he was certainly sinning before God by breaking Pretoria's law.

"Soooo...Nelson Mandela is as bad as Stalin or Hitler?"

"Yes."

"Get the fuck out of my car," I said in my imagination later that night when, unable to sleep, I polished the story to a fine sheen.

She believed it with her whole heart. That preacher had warped her inside of an hour. Around the time she asked me to pray for us in the ice cream aisle, I knew it was over. I gave up at 7 weeks. I seethed with anger, as only a trapped almost-teenaged boy can. I shoved her away, into the waiting arms of cultists, a mistake that weighs on me to this day. She moved out at 9 months, ironically at the urging of fundamentalists. I was bad for her, you see. Soon we were standing before the judge.

"And you both agree to the terms of this dissolution?" he asked.

"Yes," we chimed.

"Are there any kids?"

"No," we answered.

He looked at Nicole. "Are you pregnant?"

She paused. I turned to face her.

• • •


The phrase "time stood still" is overused. I know this because in that moment before the judge, I witnessed time standing still, and it's nothing like what you people are talking about. His question hung before me like bullets in the Matrix.


• • •


The answer was eventually an unconvincing "No," and the gavel fell.

I saw Nicole only once more after that, five years later. It was a stiflingly hot and humid day, and I'd been playing basketball. Maddie and I were going out to dinner, so I'd hopped in the shower. I was crisp and clean as I dashed into the building Nicole and her mother were exiting, miserable and matted in sweat. We nodded to one another and moved on, and for the rest of the evening I delighted that I'd been wearing a hat that concealed how much hair I'd lost.

An ugly win is still a win.

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