Sunday, July 31, 2011

I Need a Hero

I was talking to my son on the phone tonight and he offered to beat somebody up for me. Of course my response was "Yes, please. Hurt that fucker bad and make sure there's blood....but only if I can watch." "That's not the way I raised you. Of course I don't want you to beat anybody up."

"No," he insisted, "I really think this is one of those times when grabbing somebody in a dark alley and kicking some ass is the right thing to do."

And I, of course. replied, "Yes! My life story needs an ass-kicking in a dark alley right now. Go forth and be my hero, Son. And then run away fast so you don't get caught!"  "No dark alleys. That's not the way to solve anything. Do you really think it's worth getting arrested for? Do you really think this person is worth getting arrested for?"

"Maybe it is," he said. "I would do it for you."

Awwww. I smiled on the other end of the phone. He would do it for me. That's my boy. Well, that's not really my boy. He's a grown man in the prime of his life and he can take care of himself if he needs to and, more likely, other people too. He's always had the heart of a superhero. Yet he's tactful, good with words, and it's not his nature to solve problems with violence. And I've always been glad it wasn't. I've always been glad he wasn't one of those violent little boys who bullied other kids and got in fights all the time. I hate bullies.

Sure, he went through a phase where everything he put his hands on became a gun, in spite of the fact that his hippie mom wouldn't let him play with toy guns for the first few years of his life. (I despised the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All that kicking.) Lacking any actual facsimile of a gun, he would chew a piece of bread into the shape of a one. Or cut pieces of paper. A banana could become a gun or a special stick. Even his shoe.

I couldn't seem to quell his fascination with weapons no matter what I did, and yet he was never one of those violent boys. If anything, he was on the more sensitive side, more likely to be bullied when he was little. He didn't understand bullying, so he had a hard time seeing it coming and dealing with it. (Something I struggle with myself to this day. I really hate bullies.)

His violent nature, if it could even be called that, rose up when somebody else was being bullied. He could be fearless when he was protecting someone else, but he never instigated fights. And yet the damn guns! What the hell was it with the damn guns? He puzzled the hell out of me until I did some research on little boys and their innate need to know they could control their world using physical force if necessary. Turns out even hippie moms can change their minds.

But a hippie feminist mom shouldn't feel any sort of pleasure when her son offers to beat the shit out of somebody for her.....right? We don't solve problems that way. First, women don't need a man to go all crazy and start hitting people. We can solve our own problems and we don't need violence to do it. And second, there's never any reason to use physical violence unless you need to defend yourself. And even then, WWJD? Or Gandhi? Or MLK? Right? Right?

I try. I really do try to live the principles my brain says are right, true, ethical. I talk and compromise and work things out and I'm patient and kind and understanding and I listen and I forgive too  easily and my heart breaks and breaks and most of my rage is delivered to other drivers from the safety of my van and they never even know how pissed off I am so nobody is hurt. I would never condone my son giving somebody an asskicking in a dark alley....Yeah. Whatthefuckever.

There's still some part of me that felt proud and supported and...I don't know....protected when he said that. There's a part of me that's evidently neither a feminist nor a hippie that whispers that sometimes a woman has given enough of her fragile, sensitive, compromising, taking-care-of-everybody-else's-fucking-feelings self to a situation, and she would like one of the men in her life to step up and say, "It's time for somebody to get an ass-kickin' because in my world that's not the way you treat a woman." There is a part of me --a seditious, perverse part of me--that says if men are going to act like assholes, then sometimes another man has to deal with him man to man, because much as I have a wicked tongue and an even more wicked pen, I really can't deliver the same sort of message as an asskicking in a dark alley. And sometimes I just want one of the men in my life to step up and say, "This stops here because men don't behave this way. And since you don't respect that woman over there, I'm going to deal with it like a caveman. That seems to be what you understand." And then let the asskicking commence.

I'm not saying I really want my son to hurt somebody on my behalf. I really do don't do don't. I don't! But I am confessing that I kind of like the idea that he's willing to. Maybe, in spite of my feminist, hippie ways, I really do want men to be heroes, to stand up with courage to right wrongs, to defend the women in their lives, to keep alive that special masculine mythology of physical courage and protectiveness that...well, that some men do so well, even if most of those are fictional characters in movies and on TV.

Sometimes, I just need a real, live hero. But I'm not going to let my son give anybody an ass-kicking in a dark alley in my defense. At least not tonight.

Friday, July 29, 2011

I Wanna Date a Squid

I was enjoying a Friday evening walk around the two-block-long artsy, hippie(ish) district of our city a few months ago with a friend, Starfish, when we happened to wander into a porn store. Among the many marvels and oddities there we found a case of lovely glass dildos*, some suitable for framing or displaying on a mantle or coffee table. As we were the only customers in the store, the Stick Boy behind the counter was happy to take most of them out so we could comparison shop at our leisure. He did stand by in case we needed his advice, and I'm sure he had much he could offer.

Almost immediately Starfish fell in love with one particular dildo that we decided looked a lot like a little orange squid encased in a clear Pyrex...ummm....missile. Once she had her hands on Squildo, as she named him, she couldn't even consider another of the other lovely dildos resting on their black velvet bags on the counter. Her hands went back to Squildo again and again.

Now I won't bore you with the conversation we had as we debated the attributes of the various-shaped dildos: ridges vs girth, for example, or whether the ball on the end of some of them was necessary. It was lengthy and studded with scientific data as well as personal narratives and preferences, with Stick Boy chiming in occasionally with some relevant information that had nothing to do with vaginas. None of it really mattered to Starfish anyway. She only had eyes for her man, Squildo. And yet she needed to be persuaded to invest in more than a passing relationship. That conversation went something like this:

Starfish: (looking with longing into Squildo's eyes) I really should save my money. I was just complaining about having to work so many hours....
Me: Yes, but he's on sale for half off. You can't get that much pleasure just anywhere for only $30. It costs more than that to feed your boyfriend for a day.
Starfish: True. But I do have a boyfriend.
Me: Squildo will be there even when your boyfriend is in rehab. And he'll always be hard and ready.
Starfish:True. He'll never let me down.
Me: And with Squildo you'll always get your cookie.
Starfish: I always get my cookie anyway.
Me: OK, there's no reason to brag, Starfish.
Starfish: (stroking his length) Sorry. I bet Squildo gives good cookies.
Me: And you've named him. Can you really leave him here in a glass case with a bunch of anonymous dildos after you've already named him?
Starfish: His name is perfect for him, isn't it? He does kind of look like a very cute squid.
Me: He does. He's also dishwasher-safe so you know he's disease-free.
Starfish:  Cleanliness is a virtue. Squildo is virtuous.
Me: He won't get you pregnant.
Starfish: True. Although he's so cute I'd almost want to have his babies.
Me: (gagging a little) He's yours. All you need to do is give Stick Boy your credit card. He's yours.

Not Squildo
And that was that.....until this week when I was read an article about how scientists have discovered the " organ" of the deep-sea squid. Yes, the deep-sea squid has quite the impressive penis, and the willingness of one big fellow to erectify his huge squid penis in all its lengthy glory has solved a mating mystery that puzzled biologists for years. As one expert, a Dr. Arkhipkin, puts it so eloquently, "Obviously a strongly elongated penis is the solution." So true. So true.

Not a penis
I always did think squids were more than slightly phallic in the right light and captured from just the right angle....if you squint, you can see it. And they're tasty too. But even as I debated with Starfish Squildo's many fine attributes, I never imagined a real squid would be packing a pistol that size. Imagine what a human male could do with such an appendage! He could pee out of the car window or off a golf cart or a bike... He could play footsie. He could tickle the bottoms of his own feet.....I don't even think I've got words for all the things he could do with a penis like that. Anybody else want to give it a go? Really. Don't be shy. It's only your imagination.

Of course there are all the things he couldn't wear a kilt. Or even would be hard to run. Hmmm. As I head off into a busy weekend, I can only imagine how often the image of that impressive squid penis will pop into my mind. So if you happen to run into me at the Celtic Festival this weekend, and I've got a wicked smile on my lips, don't take it personally. It's probably because I'm still thinking about squids in kilts .... and other mysteries from the ocean bottom.

*No, I am not going to write a weekly blog post about dildos.....unless I get enough requests accompanied by drinks and chocolate.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Party for the Girls!

I took the Girls in for a photo shoot. A naked photo shoot. They weren't too excited about it, given it involved smashing them between two metal plates, twice each. Poor Girls. I guess we had as much fun with it as we could, but there's a reason my gyn has to threaten to take away my hormones before I'll make a mammography appointment. As breast-smashings go, this wasn't the worst I've experienced. In fact, if the Girls had enjoyed themselves more, it could almost have been a party.

The scene is set in a small torture dungeon mammography lab in a military hospital near me. I have been issued and, after removing everything from the waist up, I have donned the requisite front-opening cotton gown.

Not my nipple.*
Sarg: (tearing a couple of tiny pieces of paper from a larger roll) Here. Stick these on your nipples. The party doesn't start until you put on your pasties.
Me: (sticking two little metal bumps on each of my nipples) These are cute. If I'd known we were having a party, I would have brought some chips and dip.
Sarg: As long as you're wearing your pasties, nobody cares about chips.
Me: True that. But I'd rather wear tassels. Do you have any red ones? With feathers, if you have them. I really like feathers.
Sarg: Sorry. I'd prefer tassles too, but the radiologist likes plain pasties and he's paying for the party. Here, cozy up to the machine.
Me: What's a party without a machine, right?
Sarg: Every party needs one. Sorry. My hands are going to be cold.

I cozy up and she slips my breast onto the bottom plate of the ACME breast smasher. Her hands are indeed cold.

Me: Doesn't the Air Force provide any wine or beer for this party?
Sarg: They should give us champagne, but so far I haven't been able to talk them into it. I'm going to get as much of your tissue in here as I can. (She pulls my back muscles to the front, skin and all, and lowers the top plate to hold it all into place. She then runs behind a screen....I assume this is so I won't grab her hair and force her to let me out of her sadistic vice.)
Me: (letting out my breath as she raises the plate.) That definitely deserves more than a pair of pasties.
Sarg: I tried to get liquor-filled chocolates in here, but I guess they were afraid I would eat them all.
Me: I'd come in and party with you more often if you had booze and chocolate. The Air Force really doesn't know how to throw a good party.
Sarg: (turning her attention to the torture of my left breast) You look great in those pasties though. That's a good start.
Me: (looking down at my girl, smashed into a 25-inch diameter circle, roughly 1/2" thick.) Yeah, I'm the life of the party. You'd better run further than that little booth if my breast looks like that when it comes out of the machine. I stopped crossing my eyes for that very reason.
Sarg: (running behind the screen again.) That's why I wish I could give you champagne. But really, I only need to run if I let you out of the machine.
Me: Good point. I am your captive audience in pasties. Just so you know, I expect my pasties to point out proudly, not down toward the ground, when I leave here today.
Sarg:  Done with this set. Now we get to party standing up.
Me:  That usually only happens when the dance floor gets crowded.....
Sarg: Here, let me get as much of your back fat up to the front and into this machine as I can. Yes, you'll have stretch marks on your back when you're done, but it's better than getting cancer and not knowing it. Wrap your arm around this bar and make sure this metal corner is stuck as far into your armpit as it will go without puncturing a lung.
Sarg: This is probably going to be a little uncomfortable.
Me: I'll bet somebody could invent a more comfortable way to do this if men had to get their dangly parts smashed into this machine.
Sarg: I had to give a "special" mammogram to a man once as a favor to one of the radiologists.
Me: I wish I could have seen that....if it was the part I imagine it was. I don't suppose he had to wear a pastie....
Sarg: It was that part. I just tried not to look.
Me: He's probably in his garage right now, inventing a new machine that will still require a woman to wear pasties, but won't mutilate the Girls....or the little guy, in his case.
Sarg: OK, party's over. You can keep the pasties as a souvenir.
Me: I'll wear them every time I go out dancing. I wonder if they'll go through a metal detector.
Sarg: You go to parties that have metal detectors?
Me: And machines. Don't even try to imagine. See ya next year.

*Nipple/pastie photos available only on the Reticulated Porn premium blogsite, a bargain at only $39.95/month.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Snippet from the Labor and Delivery Room

Daughter: (panting a little at the end of a strong contraction) That's it. After this I'm celibate.
Me: What? What? I knew it! I knew you were having sex with that boy! I knew it!
Daughter: But I'm not going to any more. I'm going to be celibate. I am celibate.
Me: That won't happen. You don't have the genes for celibacy.
Daughter: Nope, I'm done. Something the size of a baby isn't supposed to go through my vagina. Something the size of a person should not go through my vagina.
Me: I could have told you if you put something into your vagina, something will have to come out. If you grow something up there for 9 months, it will be bigger than what went in.
Daughter: This fucking hurts like a motherfucker.
Me: I don't like that word.
Daughter: Sorry. I'm never doing this again. I mean it.
Me: Stop putting things in your vagina then.
Daughter: I'm serious. I'm celibate from now on.
Me: Yeah, that's not going to happen .... unless you stop putting things in your vagina. Try decorating it with crystals instead.
Love your vagina.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wild Blue Yonder

I've endured embraced evoked experienced a lot of changes in the past few years. One of those changes was the amputation of my role as an Air Force officer's wife. I'll admit, I wasn't always terribly involved, even after I climbed a steep, confusing learning curve that started when I was 21, and we moved all the way from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to our first assignment at Mather AFB in exotic Sacramento, California. I was only active in the Officers' Wive's Club the years we lived on base. Often the expectations and rules and structure chafed me to the core of my hippie being, but I became, in spite of my reluctance, an experienced officer's wife. After my husband (Lt. Col. Ex) left ops (stopped flying), the wing and squadron responsibilities ceased, as did the camaraderie of that special class of wives within the Air Force. But there were still the TDY's, the PCS's, the dining outs (or is it dinings out?)....and if this means nothing to you, don't worry about it.

I'm about to make a point, and the point is that the military, and each branch of the military, has its own unique culture and language. Bet you knew that; so do cops and firefighters and teachers. It's true of every group of people.

The subset of military wives have their own unique set of survival skills within that culture. I can buy (the easy part) and then sell (the hard part) a house in the most depressed market in the country often with only a few weeks' notice. I can pack up that house oversee movers who come to pack up the house, arrive in a new city that I didn't choose, and start a new life....sometimes more than once in a year. I can dance with a general and I've enjoyed a drink or two at the bar at the NCO club (although I got in trouble for that; wives have rank too, I learned). I can replace the insides of a toilet, clean up vomit from a kid's bed while I've got a 104 temperature from my own flu, and I can celebrate major holidays by myself. I've been alone for every one of them at least once. I can live so far from my family that I can't afford to go home for my grandmother's funeral. I can earn a college degree even if I have to attend four colleges in three different states to do it. I can lie in a hospital bed hooked up to IV's and monitors, trying desperately not to give birth at 28 weeks, and listen to the wing commander tell me he won't bring my husband home because sometimes the mission is the most important thing. (And I can stare unblinking at that wing commander until he leaves my room.) If the Air Force sends him on an assignment without his family, I can hold a military officer's place in his family open on my narrow shoulders for a year and half, so that when he gets back to the States, he can step back in almost as if he hadn't been gone. Almost. At 25 I could walk with another wife, a neighbor, whose husband's plane had disintegrated into the side of a mountain, and give her some small comfort. And I could will the blue cars that carry the people who give wives the bad news to pass by my driveway as they drove down the street..... I could go on. I can live a life in a system that proves this saying: If the Air Force wanted him to have a family, it would have issued him one.

I have skills that could have come only from immersion in the Air Force for almost 30 years. It's not a mantle anybody can put on unless she's paid her dues,* and I am proud to have survived those 30 years because I know how many military marriages don't, whether because of divorce or an airplane flying into a mountain in Utah (another story). I have seen airmen snap to attention and salute my car (not me) at a razor-wired gate thousands of times, and every single time I felt a surge of pride for the sacrifice those boys made by giving their lives over to their service.

But the past few years, since my divorce, I haven't been involved in the Air Force except for cashing my retirement check and trips to the commissary and base medical center. I don't wash a load of blue uniforms every week or listen to that particular language made up mostly of acronyms. After almost 30 years,  one of my major life roles simply dissolved.

This summer though, I've been reminded of that life again. I've experienced a couple of reprisals that made me both nostalgic and, at the same time, filled me with wonder that I made it through some of the  experiences the Air Force forced on me ... and made me miss that life more than I ever would have expected. They also reminded me of the pride and patriotism I felt for both the job Lt. Col. Ex performed in service to this country, and for the pride I felt in the strength and fortitude of my family as we supported his career no matter where it took him and for how long.

Earlier this summer I went to the tattoo at the nearby Air Force base. (Click the link. The tattoo has nothing to do with ink.) As a family, we used to go every year, even when it was much smaller and was just the base 4th of July fireworks, but somewhere along the timeline of my marriage falling apart, so did this tradition. This year, in addition to the most excellent Air Force Band of Flight, Lone Star was scheduled to play. The tattoo is one of the few times one of the secure parts of the base is open to the public. When we started going years ago, maybe 10,000 people showed up. This year, there were 100,000. It was huge.

I'm not going to tell the entire story of the night, because....well, because. But I do want to write about spending an evening back in that culture because it felt like coming home for just a few hours. I probably wouldn't have gone if I hadn't had the opportunity to go with someone whose military career mirrored, in many ways, that of Lt. Col. Ex, at least in longevity and that culture I'm talking about. It's difficult to do something like that with a civilian** who doesn't speak the language, doesn't automatically live the culture. I have to either change my language or explain the acronyms and the whys; sometimes it's just not worth it to do that.

Let me give a couple of examples. One thing that happens at a tattoo is that various military airplanes do low fly-overs as the music is playing and people are eating and walking around, awards and medals are given out and dignitaries honored. Most non-Air Force people wouldn't know a B-52 from an F-15. (And I have an embarrassing B-52 story from that night that I won't tell here.) But we sat and watched the planes fly over, identified most of them (OK, he was better at it than I was because he's still involved in the Air Force and I'm years out of the flying part of it), and shared stories from the past about experiences they brought up.....and didn't have to define the language and culture and geography we both already knew. Comfortable. Familiar.

And, although many people would enjoy the amazing and talented Air Force Band of Flight (unfortunately, more seemed to be there for Lone Star), if I'd gone with a civilian, he wouldn't have felt the same rush of pride and excitement after the MC asked people to stand when the song for their branch of the service played.....and we waited patiently through the official hymns for the Marines, the Navy, the Army, the Coast Guard.... and then stood and cheered as the opening notes to "Wild Blue Yonder" blasted from the speakers and the familiar words came automatically to our lips: "Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun...." I wouldn't have looked over at a civilian and seen tears running down his cheeks that matched mine. It's a special bond military people share that goes beyond language and culture.

And then this week, something special happened that really brought back all those years of being a military family: my daughter gave birth to her daughter, to my first grandchild, at the military hospital at the base here. It's the same hospital, the same family birthing center, where she was born twenty years ago while her dad was still active duty. It was so familiar to be there with her, coaching her through the labor and the delivery***....and yet different too. She's lucky she has family here, because we didn't. Lt. Col. Ex and I did it by ourselves with just the medical personnel, like we had 6 years before at a base in Georgia where her brother was born.

My relationship with Lt. Col. Ex is.....strained and distant. But that day, in that place, brought back memories that only he and I share. And now our daughter gave birth to our granddaughter in the same place where she drew her first breath of life.

But that's not all. My daughter's boyfriend grew up in a military family too. His dad flew fighters in Viet Nam, ten years before Lt. Col. Ex began his Air Force service, and his dad also retired here and works at the base. My granddaughter's daddy was also born in the same hospital, on the same ward. And his parents still have the little t-shirt they were given that matches the one that was given to our new little family this week.

It seemed so strange to all of the grandparents that these two kids, who were born in the same hospital a year apart, brought their daughter into the world in the same place. Military life is transient. Military kids are born on bases all over the world. I don't know how often two military "brats" who were born at the same hospital have birthed their own child at the same hospital, but I doubt it happens often. I felt an immense sense of serendipity and synchronicity that it happened to us in a such a vagabond culture as the military.

I hadn't met my daughter's boyfriend's dad until today, and didn't know his mom well. But we sat in the hospital room and talked as if we'd known each other for years. That common language. That common culture. That place where we'd experienced a life-changing event....then and experienced it again with the next generation. We sat and talked for almost two hours while our granddaughter slept
on my daughter's belly.

I guess after 30 years, most of my adult life, as a part of the military family, I should expect it would still be a part of me. But I had forgotten for a while, as I went through all those many changes--some losses, some new gains, some just different. And I didn't know it, but I missed it. It has felt good this summer to revisit that part of me, to recall who I was in that role, that familiar role. I realized that those changes don't erase the past; they just make the present different. Those years will always be a part of me....hell, they formed much of who I am today... but I can step back into that role to the degree that the situation requires, and then I guess I can step back out again when I have to. It's all part of that mysterious story that's still unfolding, scene by scene and chapter by chapter.

* Military kids are special too, but this blog is all me, all the time. And don't fucking call my kids brats. They're survivors.
** Technically we're both civilians too, but there are civilians and there are civilians.
*** Hellz yeah, I've got a lot to say about that. Soon to come.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Telling Tales

Situationally induced insomnia gave me too much time to think last night. Too much time to think about the decisions I make and how they affect my story. Yes, I do think of my life as a story--or maybe a novel plus a collection of short stories--and when I'm feeling very good about it, I imagine I have some small amount of control over the plot twists, the story arc, and the other characters who become a part of my story....and I a part of theirs.

In fact, I would go so far as to say the story metaphor provides significant support for my personal spirituality. If there is a higher power, I imagine not only having to tell my story, but also what a loving higher power would want to see in my story, be entertained by, surprised by and....well, even impressed with. What would a higher power need to see to agree that my life was a well told, engaging....dare I say heroic.... story?

Maybe that's why I make some of the decisions I make, take some of the risks I take, refuse to follow some of the rules other people follow. I want my story to be a good read--for myself and for my higher power. Some parts are riveting, I'm sure, as well as ridiculous, heartbreaking, hilarious, and....horror of all horrors, ironic. As any of my close friends would tell you, mine isn't a tale that would make believable fiction, even if Steven King or Ann Tyler wrote it. A couple of weeks ago something unexpected happened that caused one friend to turn to me and say, "If your life were a play, nobody would believe any of it." Her husband responded, "Has to be a movie. The cast of characters is too large for a play. But nobody would make it. Too strange." True that.

Am I the only one who thinks of her life as a story? Who makes moves based on how this decision or that action will play in the story? I have an idea of who I want to be*, how I want the other characters to play in the story.....what is acceptable and what I have to do in reaction to what is not. I know who I want to be....if only other people would let me.

As a child, I knew who the woman I would become could be, in a perfect world. She would be amazing in so many ways! But as a child, I didn't realize how very fucking hard it would be to reveal that woman's character among the unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances of a real woman's life. The story I imagined as a child is definitely not the story of my life so far, although there are times, moments and events, when I think, Yes, this is what I intended for my story. If I get a chance to tell my story in some imaginary afterlife to some imaginary higher power, this will be a moment of pride. Events like when my babies were born, or when I had to put Pippi to sleep, or when I performed in The Vagina Monologues. The girl I was would have wanted the woman she would become to have lived these chapters the way she lived them. If only every part of the story could be that way.....but of course it can't.

Every good writer knows it's the tension that makes the reader refuse to put the book down at bedtime. It's the chapters and short stories that the main character....OK, that I don't have control over, the ones where I felt trapped into making a choice from no good choices at all, the ones where other people's stories smack up against mine like a hidden iceberg, the ones where I don't live up to my own ideal, the regrets, the times when I'm just really fucking confused.....those are the ones that make fiction engaging, and those are the ones I can't reconcile as I toss through an insomniac night.

So much of my story, as with good fiction, comes from living in response to other people or events. In the past few years, I've made--or had made for me--so many radical changes in my life, my head spins trying to catalog all of them. I've been reinvented .... remolded ... my life purged and emptied ways I couldn't have imagined. I still feel like a soft piece of clay, waiting for the next claymation animation of me. Often I think, If I were the author of this story, I wouldn't make me go through this shit. I'm doing everything right and things are still turning to shit. Hell, maybe I'm not the author at all. And if somebody else is.....well, he or she better hope we never meet face to face.

On the other hand, if I were the author and I wanted to make a life this.....interesting....I would throw in lots of perks to make my character sympathetic, like family and friends and incredible moments of beauty and serendipity. And that certainly has happened. Happened often, especially if I pay attention, stay in the moment.

If someone were reading your one precious story, how would you want it to go next? What crazy thing would you do to make the plot move in the direction you and your higher power would cheer for? Are you one of those people who seems to be writing your own story, an author planning and executing each chapter to suit your intended ending? Or are you like me, not sure what the next chapter will bring but trying to be the best character in the story you can be, not able to see two chapters ahead, much less to the end? Knowing if this were a movie, all the loose ends must be tied up and a happy ending is necessary to satisfy the audience--the lovers will find each other again, the sheriff will win the shootout, the cops will bring in the bad guys--but that's not how real life works.

Yeah, I wish I could believe in happy endings, but that seems to only happen in massage parlors and Steven Spielberg movies. My life is more like the Cohen brothers. I never know what will happen next, but I can be pretty sure it's not what I had planned, and fuck me, I hope that's not a chipper/shredder in the next scene. Guess I'll just keep writing and see where it all goes.

* Of course, I want nothing more than to be perfect. And yet, I know the perfect story isn't told by perfect characters.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tasting My Licker

In my previous post I describe the process of making nasty zombie puke milk liqueur. Until now, not much recommended it as either a tasty, or even a safe, beverage. Just looking at it you might see it as a rich, amber liquid, ambrosia of the gods. Or you might think it looks like a large urine sample from a Klingon with kidney disease.

It sat in my refrigerator for almost two weeks before The Diplomat suggested he treat me to a pre-birthday dinner and a virgin tasting of the milk liqueur. I said I could never turn down an opportunity to slip into a little black dress, pearls and heels, but was it wise to drink a possibly deadly concoction before going out to a nice restaurant? What if we were both struck with killer diarrhea and couldn't leave the restaurant bathroom to get home? What if it made us so sick we weren't able to call an ambulance? What if we died just two days before my daughter's due date? She'd never forgive me for upstaging the birth of her first child. He said it was an adventure. I don't turn down adventures. Let's drink licker!

The Diplomat asked what restaurant I wanted to go to, what was my favorite. I said there were several I really liked, but I wanted to go someplace new, someplace where I didn't have memories of going with someone else. He suggested El Meson, a kind of Spanish restaurant that serves foods from various Hispanic countries. He assured me I could order food that wasn't spicy (I've never taken pleasure in burning my tongue on purpose. I guess I'd rather inflict pain than receive it.) and we could get wonderful tapas there. I said I was in....but first we had to test the licker. Nom? ... Nom? ... Nom?

When The Diplomat arrived at my house after work, I pulled the liqueur out of the fridge and collected a couple of aperitif glasses. I took off the jar lid and we each smelled the golden liquid. I expected it might smell like spoiled milk, cheap vodka and baby poop, but I was wrong. It smelled like a summer meadow, or maybe an English garden in bloom: sweet honey and vanilla tones, and no hint of alcohol. This isn't your daddy's corn likker. I hoped it wasn't a cosmic trick.

It's tempting.
I poured an inch or so in each glass and handed one to The Diplomat. We posed with our drinks, as if it might be our last photos.

Finally, we had to either drink it or commit hari kari. Honor required that we at least give it a try after ten days four months of steeping and randomly scheduled shaking. We each sniffed it again, like we would before the tasting of a fine wine. We toasted the event. We raised our glasses at the same time. He sipped and I watched him over the top of my glass. (Hey, I'm not trying to win a Bronze Star here, although they're easier to win than they used to be.) OK, The Diplomat had sipped and he hadn't dropped dead....yet. I was cautiously optimistic.

He gave me a challenging look so I raised my glass and dipped my tongue in the syrupy liquid. It tasted like...I couldn't believe it. It tasted like wild flowers. Like honey and vanilla and chocolate. It was light and sweet and not a bit cloying, like what I imagine butterflies and hummingbirds sip from summer flowers. Like a fairy cocktail. I was surprised the cheap vodka didn't even burn on the way down. We sipped again and smacked our lips. Mmmmmm. This actually came close to the blueberry martini I developed a couple of months ago.

"I'm amazed, " I said. "This is some yummy shit. It tastes like sex."
"It's delicious," he said. "Did you put honey in it?"
"No, just plain sugar and chocolate. Isn't it sweet and delicate?"
He was too busy sipping to answer.

We agreed it was way better than we'd expected. I started making plans to experiment with other flavors and for giving it for Christmas gifts in small antique bottles with corks. We sipped slowly until every drop was gone in our glasses, this juice of curdled milk, cheap vodka, chocolate shavings and chopped lemon. It shouldn't even have tasted good, but it would seduce Zeus. A great way to start the evening.

High on the success of the licker (and I can certainly imagine licking this ambrosia from someone's.....well, that's off the topic and X-rated as well), we headed out in The Diplomat's car for the restaurant.

El Meson is considered one of the best restaurants in our small city, because of their unique menu. Every few weeks they feature an entire menu selection from a different South American country, in addition to their regular menu. Right now, they're serving dishes from Colombia, which is also where the owners came from. The host offered us a choice of either the big, noisy main room or the quieter, more private smaller room in back. We chose the back room.

The staff sang "Happy Birthday" three times back there while we ate. Not so quiet after all, but the place has a friendlier atmosphere than most restaurants. Other diners make eye contact, share comments, laugh. The staff feel like family. The white-washed walls and terracotta tile have an Old World feeling that encourages lingering over another margarita and dessert.

First things first. We ordered their dry margaritas, which are tarter and....well, drier than the common margarita. It was the best margarita I've ever tasted, and during my years as a bartender, I tasted a few. In fact, it's the first drink I learned to make when I started tending bar at 17. I'm sorry to say I don't think I ever made one that yummy. Must experiment.

Ceviche, baked brie, margarita
We'd already decided on tapas, little plates of food that alone would be more like a snack or an appetizer. We ordered four though, so it was a meal. After a leisurely perusal of the menu, we chose ceviche, thin slices of fish that are "cooked" in lime juice and mixed with chopped tomatoes, onions and avocado; baked brie served with Spanish ham, apples, grapes, and an enormous caper berry nose; calimari, grilled with lemon and garlic and served with a sweet orange sauce; and grilled corn cakes drenched in honey.

I felt like an Iron Chef judge! The ceviche was a little spicy, but still bright and tart and fresh. Hard the tell the fish wasn't actually cooked--not that I care if my fish is cooked. The brie was was like a little picnic, with its cute, sad face. The grilled corn cakes were crisp on the outside and custardy in the middle. Sticky and delicious, but put honey on anything and I'll lick it. The calamari was my favorite though. It looked like undercooked french fries, sure. But it was perfectly grilled and the sauce was sweet with just enough acid that it didn't overpower the natural sweetness of the squid. And the squid wasn't rubbery, although I wonder if they can pull that off with the deep-fried version. Who cares! The calamari rocked! It all rocked!

dulce de leche con moras ala orgasm
But a pre-birthday dinner isn't complete without dessert, and they had many tempting choices. I decided on the dulce de leche con moras, homemade caramel and blackberries. The Diplomat said he'd just try a bite of mine. Brave man to get his spoon near my dessert, but he was buying so I felt generous. Oh....oh, oh, oh...that's it....right there....oh yeah ... Neither a photo nor words can describe this dessert, this lump of buttery caramel hidden under the sweetened blackberries and whipped cream. It melted as soon as it hit my tongue into what can only be described as a smooth, creamy mouth orgasm. The Diplomat had to dip his spoon more than once. I must have looked like I had a vibrator tucked under my dress and set on high. Happy birthday to my mouth! So......

Be the first on your block to try the milk liqueur! Your friends and loved ones will be disgusted amazed like mine were! Seriously, I didn't die. Take a risk today. Write about it. Your birthdays are limited and so are mine. Don't waste a minute of your precious life worrying about sour milk. Try the licker!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Milk Licker

I ran across a recipe for milk liqueur* several months ago, in the dreary winter months when cabin fever wants to become spring fever and I get a little crazy. It intrigued me, first because it sounded disgusting. Combine vodka, milk, sugar, chocolate and lemon, shake the concoction, and then let it sit in a dark place for several weeks? Can that be anything but nasty? Who would do that? Truly crazy, right? Damn Europeans.

And second, as it turns out, nobody I know had ever heard of it, and I run with some culinary giants who have Italian last names. It's hard to come up with anything edible somebody in my group of friends hasn't already made: cheese, yogurt, pickles, marshmallows, chocolates, bacon, limoncello....but nobody had made milk liqueur. I could be the first on my block! How do you like me now? It was very disappointing then, that when I described it, nobody wanted to try it even if I did make it.

Me: C'mon. It's got vodka in it. How bad can it be?
All friends: Spoiled milk. No. Just no.
Me: It's got chocolate in it too. How bad can it be?
All friends: No. Stop.
Me, channeling my inner Little Red Hen: That's fine. If it's really good, I'll just drink it all, bitches.

My threat went unchallenged.

It's a start.
Undeterred, I gathered the ingredients: cheap vodka (you didn't think I'd waste the good stuff, did you?), whole milk (from the store, not the raw milk I usually drink), Ghirardelli dark chocolate (what, I should have used Hershey's? C'mon.), sugar and lemons. I grated the chocolate and chopped up the lemons, then dumped it all into my sun tea jug and shook it up. The milk curdled immediately. It looked like vomit this.

The recipe calls for the fledgling milk liqueur to be shaken daily for ten days. I shook it every three or four days if I remembered almost daily for ... ummm ... about three months. Maybe four. Yes, probably four....ish.....months.

OK, in my defense, the first straining is supposed to go through cheesecloth. But when I moved into this house last summer, I didn't unpack everything, so I couldn't find my cheesecloth, and the grocery store doesn't carry it and I forgot about  my dark little secret hiding there in the pantry when I went to any of the places that might have it. I really did shake it when I noticed it. My daughter would come over and open the pantry to get chips and make rude gagging sounds complain dramatically about the disgusting jar of curdled zombie vomit she had to reach past to get her healthy snack. Probably just to encourage me to get the shit out of my kitchen, The Diplomat offered to try it with me if I'd just do something with it besides shake it once a week every day. Finally a couple of weeks ago I bought some straining towels for making farmers cheese and realized I could use them to finish my milk liqueur. Time to taste the fruits of my labor.

Milk liqueur sludge
I gave the jar one last shake and dumped the stuff into the towel, which was resting in a colander. "Don't you want to put a bowl under that?" The Diplomat asked diplomatically. Duh. I grabbed a stainless steel bowl and caught the colander underneath it. I was lucky the chunks sank down and prevented most of the liquid from going down the drain. I let it drip overnight. After the first straining, the towel looked like a dirty baby diaper and the resulting liquid looked like adult diarrhea. But it smelled good, like vodka and chocolate!

I continued to strain the liquid throughout the next day, progressing from a doubled towel to coffee filters. At some point that day, I found my cheesecloth in the kitchen towel drawer, stuck up against the side, just where you'd expect it to be. I try not to obsess about things like that.

This could be yummy.
With every straining the liquid got clearer and the particles I was straining out smaller. Finally I got down to doubled coffee filters, and after the second time through, the liquid was as clear as I was going to get it. The milk liqueur was ready to drink.

I notified The Diplomat and he expressed his continued willingness to try it. My son's girlfriend also said she'd jump off the roof give it a chance. The problem was this: when would we taste it the first time? What if it made us sick? Did I mention it started out as vodka-infused milk that sat in a dark, warm pantry for several months? We didn't want to drink it the first time before, say, a party or a night at the theater or church. So it sat in the fridge for a few days chilling and waiting for just the right time to cause us to die a horrible, puking, shitting death amaze us with its deliciousness.

Coming up in the next post: a pre-birthday dinner and the drinking of the milk liqueur.

* Milk Liqueur or licor de leite (from The New Portuguese Table by David Leite)
  • 2 1/2 cups grappa (or unflavored vodka)
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated
  • 1/2 lemon, seeded and chopped, with rind

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Welcome to Pat's Dildo Club

Rode 16 miles this morning with Mr. Cartophiliac. Note the word "morning" in that first sentence. I don't do mornings, and I don't let mornings do me. I negotiated a 10:00am start time and after a few miles, got my legs under me. Mr Cartophiliac chose the route, so we rode east, along a path that was new to me--at least the part of it we were riding. Lots of bikers shared the trail--families, small groups of teens, serious speedsters, couch riders. A big group was riding in from the next county, so there were lots of arrowed signs leading back to their starting place that said "Home." I admit to some nostalgia as I rode that direction, where I made my home for 19 years. I tend to get homesick at the strangest times when I get into that territory. But today we didn't ride that far.

I found out I can ride to a Dairy Queen that's just five or six miles from my house on that path. I figure a ride can cancel out a chocolate caramel cheesecake Blizzard every now and then.

And I saw this little bar at a crossroad....Or at least that's what I thought I saw.* I may have to stop there sometime too and see what's going on behind the blacked out windows. Could be a mini adventure in it. Maybe they have a pool table, although it's a little hard to imagine playing pool in bike shorts.Do they make leather bike shorts? Playing pool in leather bike shorts might work.

I've been riding longer and faster these days. Sometimes, if I get going about 18 mph along a good, smooth stretch of path and hold it there, I can get that feeling....the one like I'm flying. It doesn't last long on a busy-path day like today, but I got there a couple of times. The river on one side and me flying along minding my own business alongside it. It's a high, that feeling. I want to keep riding for miles and miles and miles.

We finished the ride at a crowded farmer's market in the city. I was craving a lox crepe, but it didn't taste as good as I expected. Maybe smoked salmon and capers just don't belong in a pancake. Or maybe I was still back there on the bike trail, pretending like I was flying.

This afternoon I went to an amazing, uplifting memorial service for one of the strongest, smartest, funniest women I've ever known. A full house to celebrate her 89 years of life. As I sat and marveled at the love this woman engendered, I couldn't help thinking she would have loved to have been there, laughing and talking about books. Wherever she's at, I imagine Beryl is flying too.

*When I looked again, it really said Lido Club, but I swear that sign changed. And what the hell is a lido anyway?

Thunder Moon

I’ve had a hell of a day.  I took a break this afternoon from cleaning my house to stare at Facebook for a while, and suddenly windows were opening, warnings were sounding, my hard drive was in danger… danger…. danger….It was fucking critical.

I know better, don’t I? I didn’t click. But the damn things kept coming and restarting didn’t help and they looked like they were coming from Windows and my files were failing all over the place. I clicked and got the message: this can be fixed if you send us money. Damn it. Hollered to a geek friend in Utah and she told me how to download some powerful malware software that should fix it. So far the fix hasn’t gotten back my files. I’m sure they’re there somewhere, but not where I can see them. I’ll have to keep working on that or call in local reinforcements, like the loyal friend who offered to fix it tonight within minutes of my putting out a cry for help. I am blessed with friends even when my luck sucks big green donkey balls.

No need to stay home and fret though. The geeks will help me figure it out eventually. I met The Diplomat, still in his suit and tie, downtown for happy hour in a place where I saw the ghost of myself and someone else sharing a pizza over an apology, or a salad before a poignant commercial transaction…. I tried not to look at them, watch them struggling and failing to communicate again….. on the stage now an old friend was playing her blues—she on the piano, singing, and her husband wailing on his sax. She said she would make me cry, and she did. She sure did.  She took me right off that edge. She took me there while the lawyers and office workers laughed too loud and shouted at long tables. I’m not far from it these days anyway, but the blues take me down quick and easy.

Before I left home though, another friend, a bluesman himself, sent me a long email about my writing, about where our lives are taking us now, and about new lives to come, and in it he said he wants me to “see [my] own beautiful self through [my] own eyes…” He’s feeling fragile too, tired from wandering the desert, and yet he took the time to send me words that were meant to bring healing tears…. Seeing myself through my own eyes would be better….or at least the eyes of those who cherish me.

Happy hour over, I headed out to a reunion….a group of women who gathered to howl at the full moon and plan music for a memorial service for one of our own, a crone and mentor to all of us. We shared memories in ritual, sang our old songs, and walked to a bridge overlooking a wide city street to howl at the butter-colored moon. The thunder moon or the buck moon it's called in July. I walked with an old friend who has been ill. She said she hasn’t walked in a very long time, and she doesn't feel safe to travel now. She said she was happy she could keep up with me tonight. I hope I can someday come close to her grace and emotional generosity. I’m the one who will never catch up to her, I’m afraid. Some of my sisters are generations apart from me…

Before we parted, we gathered in a circle, our arms tight around each other, and we sang to each woman in turn this song, using her name in place of “sister”:

Sister, you are beautiful.
Sister, you are strong.
Wonderful to be with,
Carry us along.
Sister, hear our loving song.

It’s much easier to sing this song to another woman, look into her eyes, nod for emphasis…yes, you are strong… hold her close against your side…yes, you are beautifulhow I wish you could see yourself through my at I wish your eyes showed you what my eyes show me about’s much easier to give this song than to receive it. Tonight….again I cried and my sisters stood with me. They shed their own tears. As we left, a dear friend gave me an early birthday card, a collage she'd made of the life she wishes for me. And so I cried for that gift as well.

On the way home, I felt strong and affirmed and so very blessed. I saw myself through different eyes. I had skipped dinner, so I was starving. My heart….well, it’s a tender thing that needs to lose some weight anyway. …but my soul had been fed a steak dinner with warm bread and butter and sweet potato fries.

And then my Muse, because she can’t resist the taste of moon tears, she took out her riding crop and started dictating a poem. I was slowing down so I’d hit red lights….so I could take down notes on the back of a sheet of lyrics, because when the sadistic bitch Dolores puts on her spurs, she’s going to ride no matter what I want. I’ll post the poem when it’s had time to cure…ouch, stop that….maybe tomorrow….you’re hurting me….maybe Sunday…..give me that fucking riding crop, you nasty mythological creature you. She can’t always get her way. It’s late and I have so many things to do tomorrow, starting with a morning bike ride.

I’m still working on those other posts….promises to keep and miles to go. But the Muse will give me what she gives me, and tonight all she’s going to give me is this one poem: My Crazy Poem. Wait for it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Preview of Upcoming Posts

How many posts can a blogger work on at one time? Right now I'm juggling four. These things don't write themselves, you know. I keep getting distracted other things: a 6-hour lunch at Panera today (so glad they don't charge by the hour), Eric Northman True Blood, Facebook status updates (they don't write themselves either), my empty glass of wine. I know blog posts should come first, but as my freshmen....and, come to think of it, 300-level too....students whiiiiiinnnnnne to me by the third week of every quarter, "Writing is haaarrrrrd."

"Suck it up or learn to speak garbled English into a headset," I tell them. "By the time you've said, 'Do you want fries with that?' a few thousand times, writing will seem like the privilege it is. Now burn this draft and start over. And next time, put it in paragraphs."

Here, in case you're interested, is a list of upcoming posts. No, you won't have to watch any commercials after this preview, but I figure if I make a public promise, I'll finish these sooner rather than later. Here's what I'm working on.
  1. Milk Licker Liqueur: Drink at Your Own Risk (with pornographic disgusting photos)
  2. People Like Cindy and Me: Coda (Did Cindy ever find her clitoris? Was it ever lost?)
  3. The Year of Square Dancing and My First Three-way (in that order)
  4.  You Can Call Me Grandmommers (Anybody who's read We Need to Talk About Kevin will be totally creeped out by that. If you haven't read it, you should. It will ruin your summer, but you can say you read a book by a truly great writer.)
Procrastinate? Who me? You think this is procrastinating? Just let me pour another glass of wine and tune my guitar, and I'll show you procrastination. (I'd be willing to entertain a vote on which one I should finish first.)

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    Fun with Chuck

    A play in one act. Note: Spoken words are in normal font; thoughts are in italics. You've done this before, but I want to be very clear about what was said and what was not said.

    Chuck: M**** V***** Mower Repair. This is Chuck.
    Me: Hi, Chuck. This is Reticula*. I left my mower with you over three months ago. I wanted to make sure you were going to be there so I could come over and pick it up. Nobody called to tell me it was done, but I'm going to pick it up anyway.
    Chuck: OK, let me find your ticket. What did you say your name was again?
     Me: Reticula.
    Chuck: (after a long pause) I don't have a ticket for you. What kind of mower is it?
     Me: Craftsman.
    Chuck: Green?
     Me: Red.
    Chuck: (another long pause) I can't find the ticket or the mower. (He asks a bunch of boring questions about the mower to help him distinguish it.) Sorry, I can't find a ticket for you or your mower. I'll have to call you back.
     Me: I have the ticket you gave me. (I read him the number.) I called the week before Memorial Day and you said you would finish it the next week.  You seemed to have it then. It's now July 12 and I want my mower whether it's done or not.
    Chuck: OK. Call you back.
    Chuck: (Ten minutes later) Miss Reticula, I found your mower. I don't have a ticket though so I don't know what I did to it. I don't know what to charge you for the work I did.
     Me: You've had it for three months. I don't know what you did to it either. After that long, you could have married it and started a family for all I know. And really? You're going to charge me after you kept it for three months and then lost it. Guess who's going to lose it next? You were supposed to fix the pull cord and sharpen the blade.
    Chuck: Oh, yeah. I did that.
     Me: Uh huh. It really doesn't matter now. I just want my mower back. You said it would take less than two weeks. It's been at least three months. I'll take it whether it's done or not. You really should deliver it and mow my lawn for free, you dickwad. And detail my van. I've been living without internet and phone service and dealing with Time Warner for six days. You have no idea how fucking close I am to a red-headed meltdown.
    Chuck: OK, I'm sorry. Listen, I'll give you a free oil change and tuneup because I shouldn't have lost your ticket and it's been so long. Can you give me long enough to do that?
     Me: I don't care about that. I just want my mower back. I have another errand to run and then I'll be there. Do you think I just woke up in the cabbage patch today? You didn't fix my mower, but you want to hurry and do it so I'll have to pay you. How I hate being lied to.
    Chuck: Call me before you come. I may have to run out.
     Me: I'll call, but have my mower ready soon. I'm taking it no matter what condition it's in. And you'd better be there when I call.

    (An hour later. I've driven downtown to renew my driver's license. Although I could have ridden my bike in far less time, I need my van to pick up my mower. I found the rare parking space, but the meter wouldn't give me time even after I pumped in three quarters. The phone number on the meter took me to hold hell for ten minutes, so I put a note on my van begging the very attentive meter nazis not to give me a ticket. And then I went in and had a driver's license photo taken six times before I finally kept my eyes open long enough to produce the goofiest photo I've ever worn on a license before. No, you can't see it. It's hideous. I call Chuck and tell him I'm on my way.)

    Chuck: I'm not quite done with your mower. How long will it be until you get here? Half an hour?
     Me: No, more like ten minutes. It doesn't matter if you're done. I'm taking it. WTF is the matter with this guy? Is he going to hold my seven-year-old mower for ransom? I'm taking that fucking mower even if it's in pieces.
    Chuck: OK, take your time.

    (I pull into an alley and park beside the garage that is Chuck's repair shop. He's nowhere in sight. The garage is filled except for a narrow walkway with the shell an old car up on blocks, maybe a 50's-something Pontiac. Every kind of junk imaginable is piled on and around it: tires, springs, small engines, empty soda bottles, boxes of parts, handles that don't attach to anything, empty oil bottles. I look closer and wonder what that yellow liquid is in several reused soda and dish soap bottles. It looks suspiciously like....but surely it's not....pee. Better it's pee than gasoline though, right? With all the cigarette butts littering the greasy floor? My mower is sitting on its side right outside the door, oil draining into a pan. Good move, Chuck. I can't take it like that, can I? Chuck finally comes out. He has my blade, newly sharpened, in his hand.)

     Me: I'm Reticula. I'm here to pick up my mower.
    Chuck: It will be just a minute. I'm almost done.
     Me: I hope it won't take long.
    Chuck: I'm really sorry about this. I am. You don't know how bad this makes me feel that I lost your ticket and didn't call you. I feel so terrible. (He hangs his oversized head.) I'm really so sorry.
     Me: (I look at him being all pathetic and shit: his baggy, filthy t-shirt, his cut-off-into-shorts sweat pants, his row of missing front top teeth, his hair that looks like he cut it himself.) Shit. It's just a fucking mower. I have one in my garage I've been using. My next door neighbor doesn't even have one and has to borrow one or hire somebody to mow her grass. It's just a fucking mower, not a person. Sigh. I forgive you, Chuck. It was just a mistake and I've made lots of them myself. Too many to allow me to judge other people. I'll just read a book in my van until you're done and then I'll take my mower and go. (I manage a smile.)
    Chuck: OK, it won't take me long. Thank you. Thank you.

    (I get a book from my van and settle under the back hatch to read in the 90+ degree heat. Sweat is running down my back and through my hair. Chuck starts to put the blade on, but then comes over to the van with the part that holds the blade in his hand. He shows me the molded hunk of metal and tells me the bumps that hold the blade on are worn off and it's not safe to put it back on. The blade will slip and blah blah blah.)

     Me: Just go ahead and replace it.
    Chuck: I will, but I don't have the part. Heil Brothers over on Wilmington might have one though. I could call and ask them if you wouldn't mind running over there and getting it. I won't charge you for putting it on.
     Me: I could put that fucking blade on myself. Why would I pay you to screw that part on my mower anyway? I only needed you to sharpen it. I wish I had a sharp object in my, I don't. That wouldn't be good. I'm so fucking hot. You want me to go and pick up a part for a job you said you did weeks ago? I thought you'd already sharpened the blade before.
    Chuck:  Oh, I said I'm really sorry about that. I could put this on with my air gun and tighten it down for now. Then I could get the part and you could bring your mower back later.
     Me: You've got to be fucking kidding me. Come back here? Ever? Really? No, I don't want to load my mower in the van and come back here with it again. I'll go get the part.

    (Chuck calls ahead so the other store will have the part ready and tells me where to go to get it. I get in my van and drive away. It will take about twenty minutes to get there and another twenty to get back. I've gone about four blocks when my cell phone rings. It's Chuck.)

    Chuck: Hi, Reticula? (He uses my first name as if we're dating now.) I was just wondering, since you're going to be there anyway, could you pick up a cable I ordered at Heil Brothers? I'll just take the cost of it off your bill.
     Me: I don't believe this. Now I'm unpaid labor? I just want my fucking mower back! OK, Chuck. Tell them to have it ready for me. I'll bring it back.

    (I get to the big fancy lawn mower store. I gaze with envy at the brand new mowers. If I'd just bought one of those instead of taking my mower to Chuck.....I go up to the counter and ask for my part. The guy says he doesn't know anything about it. He asks five or six other guys. Nobody there knows what the fuck I'm talking about. He's ready to give up. I tell him to make sure he asks everybody so he finally finds a guy in the back who talked to Chuck. He gets my part. I ask about the cable. Nobody knows anything about it. Apparently Chuck didn't really order it like he thought he did. I call Chuck and hand my phone to the guy who talked to him earlier. He finds the cable and $21 later, I'm out the door. I flex the cable and wonder if it's long enough to use as a garrote. Back downtown I go with my mower parts. When I get there, I give them to Chuck and sit in the back of my van waiting for him to finish my mower. He uses the new part to secure my blade and pulls off another part. He brings it over to show me.)

    Chuck: This is your air filter. I was going to just blow it out, but see? It's pretty bad. You need to replace it. It will be $7.20, but I won't charge you for putting it on.
     Me: I could replace a fucking air filter myself. I just wanted my cord to pull and my blade sharpened. Three months ago. It's not just hotter than hell out here. It's hell. I'm in hell. OK, Chuck. Just put the new air filter on it. Whatever.
    Chuck: (Unwraps the new air filter and installs it. Sets my mower up on its wheels and pushes it over to my van. He gives the rope a tug and it starts up with a roar and a greasy burp of exhaust. Evidently it's fixed.) There you go. See it's all fixed. Now let's see. You owe me for the cord, the blade, the air filter....
     Me: And you owe me for the cable I bought you at Heir Bros. Here's the receipt.
    Chuck: Oh. OK, the blade holder (not the real name, but by now I've totally lost my ability to process language or numbers) and the air filter are about the same so that comes out even....Oh, but I got you a discount so it would have been $9.00.
     Me: Are you kidding me, Chuck? I drove over there and bought it myself and saved you a trip for your other part too!
    Chuck: Well, yeah, but you did use my discount....See, right here? (He points at the receipt.)
     Me: (Not looking.) I don't believe this. You kept my mower for three months, lost it, didn't have it fixed when you said you did. I had to drive and buy my own parts after I got here and picked up a part for you too and you're standing there telling me you got me a discount? Really? Really, Chuck? Really? Is that what you're telling me? He's lucky the mower is between us. I bet I know how this guy lost his teeth. It was no accident. Somebody knocked those pearly fuckers right out of his face. I wish there were more left so I could do the, that would be crazy. He's a lawn mower guy. I have a graduate degree and teach at a university.....Fuck that! I'm a red-head. We get crazy sometimes. Where's my pea shooter?
    Chuck: Well, I did change your oil for free. And I put on your air filter for free.
     Me: I could have put on my own air filter and I didn't ask you to change my oil. I could have taken my mower to Heil Brothers in the first place and it wouldn't have taken three months to get it fixed. That's what I should have done.
    Chuck: Well, I shouldn't speak bad about my competitors, but they probably would have kept it at least three weeks over there. They aren't that much faster.
     Me: (Putting my degree in rhetoric to good use.) Chuck, three weeks is not as long as three months. You had it way longer than they would have.
    Chuck: I'm just saying I've been trying to make up for it. I'm really sorry too. Really sorry.
     Me: I'm done. Just write me up a bill, and itemize it so I know what I'm paying for. I need to get out of here.
    Chuck: OK, I probably said I'd charge you more, but I'll take $30.
     Me: Fine. Can you take my card or do I need to write a check?
    Chuck: I only take cash.
     Me: Great. Just like the fucking DMV and they took most of my cash for my new driver's license. (I get out my little money purse.) I have $13 in cash. You can either take that and call it good, or I'll write you a check.
    Chuck: I guess you could write a check. Or there's a little ATM around the corner....
     Me: No, once I leave here I'm not coming back. Take the cash I've got or take the check. Your choice. (I start writing the check. The last check I have with me.)
    Chuck: OK, I guess if I have  any problems with the check I can call you.
     Me: Wait! If he has any problems with me? With me? With my check? (I stop writing and stare at him.) I wish I had the kind of superpower where my eyes would melt things like metal and rocks and mower-repair men. You won't have a problem with my check.
    Chuck: I just want to make sure I get paid. You know, you got about a $75 tuneup for only $30.
     Me: No, it's $45 because I paid for your fucking cable, which I didn't garrote you with....Oh, I need to get out of here. Is every crazy in the world out to get me? You had my mower for three months. You lost it.
    Chuck: I know and I'm really sorry about that. But I just want you to remember what it could have cost you. 
    Me: Yeah, I'll try to remember that. If I don't get out of here, it will cost me a few years in prison. The very least I'm going to do if I don't leave this place very soon is open one of those bottles of pee-yellow liquid and pour it over his head. I might not light a match.....or I might. Some people already think I'm crazy. I'd probably get off with an insanity plea. (I hand him the check.)
    Chuck: Can you give me a hand lifting this into your van? How did you get it in when you brought it over?
     Me:  I lifted it in myself by putting the front wheels up first. (We lift together and put the mower in the back of my van.)
    Chuck: Smart girl.
     Me: Don't do it. It's almost over. Don't do it. Don't do it. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.....
    Chuck: OK, there you go. I hope next time you need some work done you'll remember everything I tried to do to make things right and come back here.

    (I don't look at him again. I walk calmly to the driver's door of my van and get in. I start the van. I put it in drive, not reverse, which would of course have been dangerous for Chuck, who is still standing behind my van, and I drive away with my mower. Three months.... and one hour and 45 minutes after I left my mower with Chuck, I drive away with it, not one bit grateful that I got all that "free" stuff, but very grateful that I didn't hurt anybody today.....yet.)

    *Names have been changed although it's really too late to protect the innocent.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    How to Win an Argument and Still Keep Your Friends

    For a rhetoric geek like me, one of the biggest crimes against persuasion is the logical fallacy*. As Aristotle is my witness, I find argument fallacies the tools of the weak-minded and lazy, those who know they have lost but refuse to give up the battle gracefully. Those who would prefer to derail a perfectly reasonable discussion with dodges and equivocation (yes, that’s one of those pesky fallacies) just so they can pretend they “won” ... something. Those who know they don’t have an argument, and yet refuse to either gird themselves for the next round with real support or better yet, concede the point.

    When I talk about argument, I’m not talking about the kind of argument that happens when a bunch of guys sit around the neighborhood bar after work every night drinking Buds and out-yelling each other over whose football team will win the play-offs this year. Nor is it the kind of fights you still have with your brother or sister about who mom loves more. Nor is it about whose turn it is to clean out the cat box.

    In my world, the reason for argument—also known by its kinder, gentler name, persuasion—is to further knowledge, to deepen communication, to negotiate understanding in order to persuade one person to take a certain action or adapt a belief. It's not, used ethically, a way to manipulate someone into doing something he doesn't want to do or believe. It's a way people can come to an understanding, even if that understanding is simply to disagree. One “side” isn’t necessarily right; and often there are several valid points of view, not just the two sides commonly known as point/counterpoint. The purpose should be to bring those sides closer to understanding through honest communication, not to create conflict. So when I use the word “argument,” this is the definition I’m operating under.

    Of course, any good argument is sufficiently documented with reliable sources that can include anything from personal narrative to scientific study results to expert testimony. A good argument never starts and ends with “because I say so.” And a decent persuader isn’t concerned with who wins and who loses. In other words, the thrill is in the well-played game, not in the beating down of an opponent. It’s not a knock-down, drag-out, which is why I have so little regard for any piece of writing that’s riddled with argument, or logical, fallacies…and I see a lot of to disregard out there in Internetsland.

    Do a search for logical fallacies and you can find long lists of them, some that conflict and others that are difficult to tell apart. Many have Latin names, so if you memorize a few and can call people out on them, you can sound really smart—if your audience understands what you’re saying and cares. (Not everyone will be impressed if you leap up at your favorite watering hole and shout, "That's a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument if I ever heard one!")

    One reason they’re called logical fallacies is because they appear on the surface to be reasonable arguments. Sometimes it's hard to determine why an argument doesn't make sense, because these little obfuscators take crazy turns and circle around to catch you from behind. It’s only when you examine them critically that they turn into the lies and smokescreens they really are. Knowing and naming some of these fallacious moves can make you feel less crazy when you're trying to communicate with someone who uses them.

    Here are my top three logical fallacies that are guaranteed to put a halt to any reasonable attempt at communication and turn it into a brawl between the ignorant, should you decide to stay in such a low form of debate.

    1.  Ad hominem means an argument that is “to the man.” In other words, it’s an attack on a person, not on ideas. I call this one the bar fight of the fallacies. It’s probably the easiest to spot and yet the most commonly seen diversion from an authentic argument. It’s also, I think, the most despicable. If you can’t do better than the ad hominem, just shut the fuck up. You don’t have a dog in this fight. Here’s an example:

    Jimmy says, “Green Bay scored more touchdowns this season than any other team, and their defense held every team under 48 points.  They’re a shoe-in to win the playoffs.” (I made up those stats.) Bill, a Steelers fan, replies from the other end of the bar, “Jimmy, you’re a fucking idiot. Green Bay’s got nothing but a bunch of pussies on their team this year.”

    So Jimmy made an attempt at communication, but Bill changed the topic on him. Jimmy now has a number of choices if he’s going to continue the discussion by responding to what Bill said: he can defend his own intelligence or he can defend the masculinity of the Green Bay Packers; he can just ignore Bill or he can break a pool cue over Bill’s head or he can just go take a piss and hope Bill has passed out when he gets back to his stool. None of those options have anything to do with what he was talking about, but if Bill has successfully diverted the conversation, then Jimmy can forget about having a real conversation about who might win the play-offs and why. One of the reasons I hate this logical fallacy most is because it’s such a chickenshit move.

    Anybody can call names**, and if you really just want to end the conversation, or even the relationship, do that. What’s harder is to enter into an authentic dialog with someone who says something that feels threatening to you, or even someone who just doesn’t seem to agree with you, and attempt to learn something from his or her point of view, find the common ground. And maybe at the same time learn something about yourself and your own opinions and beliefs by the very act of having to explain and support them. It’s so hard to be a grownup sometimes, isn’t it?

    2. The either/or argument fallacy sounds pretty obvious and it is. But it’s still one of the most common mistakes people make, and it’s one that can close off a lot of perfectly good choices. Adults use this one on kids a lot, and then those kids grow up to be rigid adults who can’t come up with creative ideas for solving problems. This one says you can either have chocolate cake or ice cream for dessert. It doesn’t leave room for eating a small amount of each. Or going somewhere else for dessert. Or making something else from scratch. Or not eating dessert at all. It’s the one that says you can choose the red shirt or the blue shirt….and, no, boys don’t wear pink so that’s not an option. Kids have to go to school or they can’t get into college. The possibilities for narrow choices are endless.

    When my daughter was little she hated cooked peas so much they made her gag. She would eat them frozen though. So when I made peas for dinner, I poured some frozen peas on her plate and the rest of us ate cooked. We were visiting my mom during this phase, and I had cooked dinner for all of us. As we sat down to eat, I pulled the bag of peas out of the freezer and poured some on my daughter’s plate.

    “Why are you doing that?” my mom asked. She rarely challenges my parenting decisions, but this one raised her hackles.
    “She doesn’t like them cooked,” I said.
    “Well! She needs to eat them cooked the way the rest of us eat them,” she said, looking at the frozen peas with disgust. “Peas are supposed to be cooked.”
    “Why?” I asked.
    Silence. She stared at me and narrowed her eyes. “Because that’s how we eat them.”
    I said, “She won’t eat them at all if they’re cooked. She doesn’t like them cooked. What’s wrong with frozen? It doesn’t cause more work for me and I don’t have to fight with her.” I sat down to eat.
    Long silence. “Oh. I never would have thought to do it that way. I guess it really doesn’t matter, does it?” She laughed at herself and sat down. (I will vouch for her and agree that she never would have let one of us eat frozen peas. We ate what was put in front of us and liked it. Period.)

    The temperature of peas really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we are rarely limited to only two choices: cooked peas or no peas. But there are a couple of reasons person A would throw this one into a discussion with person B. One is to limit the negotiation to only the choice person A wants and something nobody really wants. Another is to create the impression that a workable solution to a problem can’t be found. No, we can’t go ahead with the project because we only have these two choices and neither of them will work. That shuts down the discussion, doesn’t it? And a third is because person A learned, probably as a child, to only see the either/or in a situation.

    I find this one particularly annoying because I just don’t live in those black and white areas of life. I live almost entirely in the gray. So if somebody says to me, “it has to be this way or that way,” I want to know what’s in between. Especially in the relationship area, where this kind of fallacy tends to crop up so easily. I will say again, just like with the ad hominem, that I think many people make these fallacies because they’re afraid to enter into an authentic negotiation; they have a mindset where if they move off their position, they chance losing something. And they really might lose one of those polarized choices; but they might also gain a choice that’s better.

    Two choices are easy, though, comfortable. Finding common ground in the gray area….it gets kind of foggy sometimes. It can take a while to find each other in there, muddling around with the possibilities. I find that holding hands can really help in that case, if both parties are really willing to be in that place and find each other there.

    So beware if anybody tells you there are only two, polar-opposite choices. It’s probably not true (because it’s a fallacy, duh), and something in between might work better for everybody. It sounds so simple when I say it, doesn’t it?

    3. This final one is a little more complex, but it’s so very common and tricky and frustrating: the straw man. The straw man can make you feel like you’re crazy, like you’re saying one thing and something entirely different must be coming out of your mouth, something distorted or exaggerated or not even part of your real argument, because the person you’re trying to communicate with seems bent on arguing against something you didn’t even really say, much less intend to say. He will set up a fake argument (straw man) that he represents as your argument and then knock that argument down…even though you didn’t make that pitch. Which means you can’t continue with your own cogent, well supported argument because suddenly you’re in the position of defending yourself against something you didn’t even say. Yep, you’re in the logical fallacy Twilight Zone.

    Back in the day when homeschooling was rare, some of us spent too much time on the infant internet defending our choice to highly critical public school teachers and parents when all we really wanted to do was find support from like-minded people who were interested in authentic dialog about our families’ lifestyle choices. Here’s how a message board conversation about problems in the schools might go:

    Me: We started homeschooling because my son was being bullied in school—often by his teacher or the lunch lady (yes, there’s a story)—but mostly because he learned more and better at home. There are real problems in the schools with crowded classrooms, overworked teachers, boring or ineffective curricula, and even violence among students. Textbooks are often outdated and teachers spend more time on crowd control than on teaching. And don’t get me started on state-mandated testing! The system didn’t work for us and I don’t think it works for a lot of kids.
    Detractor: You homeschoolers just want to isolate your kids. You’re all crazy Christians and you don’t want your kids to be around normal kids. All kids need to be socialized.
    Me: No, I don’t isolate my kids. And I don’t know how you define “socialized.” We went on a field trip to the zoo with our homeschool group today and stopped at the grocery store on the way home. Tonight my son has Boy Scouts and my daughter has a piano lesson. Tomorrow a reporter from the local paper is coming to interview us for an article. They are far from isolated.  And we aren’t Christians. I thought we were talking about the problems in the schools here.
    Detractor: The problem is that you only want your kids to learn what you want them to learn. Kids should learn about evolution, and btw there’s no place for prayer in the school.
    Me: I didn’t say anything about school prayer. I think we agree about that. And my kids do learn about evolution and believe it. Weren’t we talking about the problems with the education system? Do you have anything to say about that?
    Detractor: You’re a terrible mom. Your kids should be in school with other kids. And if there are bullies, they should learn to take their knocks like the other kids do.

    I wish I could say it’s easy to just walk away from a conversation like this where communication breaks down entirely and the only option is total defensiveness. It’s even worse when more than two people are involved, taking sides, playing off each other, ganging up on both sides to further confuse the issue. Here’s what I would try to say to the Detractor:

    Me: “I’m talking about very real and pervasive problems in the public school system, but you keep changing the subject. I suspect that’s because you can’t defend a position against what I’m saying and it’s very uncomfortable for you to admit I might be right. But let me be clear: You don’t think I should isolate my children. I also don’t think I should isolate my children nor do I think I or any other homeschooler should isolate children. In fact, I haven’t been isolating my children. I may not report back to a school “authority” every time I take my children out, but I do not isolate my children. We agree on that non-issue. Now can we talk about the real problems?”

    Would that work? Probably not. There’s a reason why the Detractor doesn’t want to engage in the real topic. There’s a reason why he wants to derail the conversation from the more important issues, and focus on something irrelevant and possibly even false. Maybe the real issues seem overwhelming, unmanageable. Maybe he feels too much pressure from society or family members to even consider such a radical choice as homeschooling. Maybe he’s not skilled at the art of rhetoric and can’t convincingly present his views, so he relies on attack instead. Maybe he really does think I’m crazy; maybe he dislikes me so much he can’t see past his own prejudice about me. Or maybe he agrees with me, and agreeing with me feels terribly threatening. What might he have to lose if I’m right about the problems in the schools? People can have lots of reasons for setting up a straw man and then trying to knock him down.

    OK, those are my top three argument fallacies, for no reason other than a top ten would have been even longer than this, and because I think they’re the most common. I could be wrong. Others such as the slippery slope, poisoning the well, circular reasoning, over simplification, or hasty generalizations are all too common as well.

    Of the three, the last one is the hardest to move past if you really want to engage in honest communication. An ad hominem argument is not so hard to divert. Go on. Call me a bitch….or even a crazy bitch. I’ll probably agree, as long as you don’t call me a dumb bitch. Of course the proper response, which I learned sometime during 30 years of marriage, is, “Yes, I am and you’re the one who made me that way!”

    An either/or argument can be mitigated by introducing more options or even sincerely asking why there are only two, polar-opposite choices. If the other person is open to honest communication, that often moves the discussion past rigid beliefs into the negotiation zone. If both parties want it to happen. If one party simply wants control, then it’s possible nothing can be done.

    That last one…it’s hard to get past. Often the straw man shows a level of either defensiveness or disrespect or fear that’s going to torpedo any attempts at respectful, authentic communication, which is why I dislike this one so much. An ad hominem attack may seem more personal, but people throw out names without really feeling that much disdain for the other person. But someone who insists on twisting another person’s words—especially someone who is trying hard to be earnest and sincere—probably doesn’t want real communication….or a genuine relationship. It might not matter on an internet message board, but in your favorite bar or with family and friends you love, it really does matter.

    Have I been guilty of all of the logical fallacies I’ve mentioned here and some others I can’t even pronounce? Hellz yeah! But I really try not to do that. I try to catch myself because that isn’t the kind of relationship I want with anyone, even someone I don’t really like. I'd much rather take on the challenge of supporting a real argument that does all of those things I listed in the third paragraph.

    And that is your English lesson for today. In a few weeks, some poor, innocent freshmen at a university in the Midwest will get the same lesson…and then they’ll have to write an academic argument that doesn’t contain any of these. Who’s signing up

    * Simply a dressed-up phrase that means the same as “diversion from the truth” or “sneaky lie.”
    ** The ad hominem can be gender specific. Women are (crazy/fat/fucking/insert your own adjective) bitches. And men are assholes. Once you’ve determined that, the argument is over, right? You’ve made your point.