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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Grumpy, Growly Grizzly Bears

Opposites may initially attract, but the aspect of your darling’s character that giddied your pitter-pattering heart in the blissful early days of courtship may eventually become the thing that makes it dangerous to keep steak knives handy in a chopping block on the kitchen counter.
For example, there are early birds and there are night owls, right? Everybody knows this. Early birds are those
Peregrine Espresso,
Washington, D.C.
(A truly wondrous place.)
annoyingly chipper smiling things who go to coffee shops at six thirty in the morning to, like, meet people, and talk to them, rather than to utilize the establishment for its intended purpose, which is to siphon black plasma into the sullen, walking dead, in order to make them functionally productive members of the work force for another day.
Night owls, by definition, are debauched party people who sleep away the day, then squander their lives in dissipation and vacuous pursuits which take place in the wee hours of the morning. When as a teenager I lobbied for a later curfew, my mother told me, “Nothing good happens after midnight.”
(That’s not entirely true, I discovered a few years later, depending on one’s definition of good. But my mother may read this, so that’s all I’ll say about that.)
I’m one of the annoying morning people. I side with Ben Franklin who famously claimed, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.” I awaken at sunrise, pleasantly refreshed and ready to welcome the new day like Snow White, with a tranquil comportment and a gracious word for any and all who enter my atmosphere. Bless you.
My husband, who leans to the dark side, likes to remind me that although the early bird gets the worm, it’s the second mouse who gets the cheese. He awakens when he has absolutely no other choice, with an expression in his narrowed eye slits that communicates complete and undiluted acrimony toward the universe, the new day, and any unfortunate creature who happens to stumble into his presence.
And the back end of the day is no different. Over the course of the next twelve hours or so, Hubby and I gradually migrate to the opposite opposite ends of the La-Vie-Est-Belle spectrum. By nightfall I morph into the lovechild of Freddy Krueger and Nurse Ratched, while Hubby becomes Prince Charming with a side of Captain Kangaroo.
You can imagine the depth and length and breadth of our mutual disgust for one another.
The first twelve years of our marriage were spent embattled, one irresistible force grinding and grating and bludgeoning the other immovable object. It’s mystifying, really, how we ever managed to end up with three kids, since our personal happy-hours only overlap for ninety minutes or so every day, between about three o’clock and four thirty, and he’s usually at work then.
Our children, apparently, owe their existence to the weekend.
Husband’s morning demeanor made me question the wisdom of having knitted my life and soul to such a surly, intractable slab of man-flesh. My pre-wedded fantasies of sitting at the breakfast table with my beloved, talking about our dreams, swilling coffee, and doing the crossword together perished like a blown-glass rose tossed under the tracks of a Sherman tank. “Why do you have to be such a jerk every morning?” I would ask. Sweetly.
It was only a fantasy.
By evening, however, the shoe is on the other grumpy, growly Grizzly bear foot. Husband’s expectations of pleasant family time around the dinner table, followed by a long evening of couple-canoodling after the kids are abed, collapsed like the Galloping Gertie bridge in the furious wake of my nightly mutation into Mrs. Hyde. “What is wrong with you?” he would inquire. “It can’t be that time of the month every single day.”
(Men, just a heads-up here. Them’s fightin’ words. No matter how nice you try to sound when you say them.)
Then one night, during our evening repartee, I heard myself tell Hubby, “You know what? The way you feel at seven o’clock in the morning is how I feel at seven o’clock at night!”
And, eyes widening, we both went, “Oh… OH!”
“We should help each other with this.”
Duh.
Duh, duh-duh, duh, duh, duh-dee-dee-duh, duh, DUH!
We are both reasonably clever and practical people. Why, why, WHY did it take well over a decade of marriage and mutual scarification to stumble upon this simple, sensible, obvious solution to the problem?
I’m delightful in the morning and miserable at night.
He’s jovial at night and deplorable in the morning.
I will say it again: DUH.
So, now I do mornings. Alone.
I get up before everyone else and have my happy, dayspring, God-is-in-his-heaven-and-all-is-right-with-the-world me time, birds a-twittering and sunrise a-glittering. Then I make a yummy and nutritious breakfast for my beloved darlings, adorably presented on plates with the care and artistry of an ikebana arrangement. I dress and take the little cherubs to their buses, then spend the next several hours doing all the myriad things that must be done to keep a household of five running like a well-oiled Formula One car.
Then, as the sun descends, the pall begins to fall. A shadow slides over my soul as surely as the stars peer out from the darkening eastern horizon.
I love this life no longer. My spirit retreats into the shell of its former glory and I close up on myself like a pill bug in the sweaty, sticky palm of a toddler. But the children have come home, with homework and bickering and hunger pangs for dinner but “I don’t like that we had that last week how come you don’t cook the way Jimmy’s mom does— stop touching me Mom she keeps looking at me make her stop MOM!!!”
But I know that I just have to hold it together till HE gets home, my knight in shining armor, my deliverer cresting the hills of Zion on his charging stallion (or in his PZEV Subaru), my Superman “I’m holding out for a hero till the end of the night and he’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight…”
Hubby takes the reins after the sun goes down.
He supervises the baths and ensuing draining of the pool, I mean mopping up of the bathroom floor.
If I ever did a facial peel,
I would look exactly like this person.
He conducts the household re-organization, toy-retrieval, and personal property reunification (“That’s mine!” and “No, it’s mine!”).
He gets them safely and soundly and PJ-cladly into their beds, sometimes even under the covers and in the right direction, so I can slip, smiling, into their rooms at the last minute and give hugs and kisses. With my last few drops of hoarded energy I channel Mary Poppins, rather than manifest Mommy Dearest.

It works. So. Much. Better.
I don’t even drink on school nights anymore. (That’s a joke, people. Churchgoing ladies like me don’t ever admit that we drink.)
So, what else are Hubby and I doing wrong? Where do we waste our time and energy locked in a titanic clash of self-righteous pig-headedness when we could instead cooperate and save the knives for the filet mignon? (If I ever cooked filet mignon.)
And I’m kidding about the knives. We wield nothing but razor-sharp wit and serrated logic when we battle. Hubby doesn’t even curse. Ever. Seriously.
And neither do I. Ahem.
Okay. I’ve got to go. He just got the laundry out of the dryer and he’s doing the towels wrong. Again. What is so hard about folding them into thirds instead of quarters?
Good grief. How many times do we have to go over this…

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Robophobia

I just got a new phone because my three-year-old model began behaving like any other three-year-old: petulant, defiant, irrational. It accepted incoming calls when the mood so moved it, and allowed outgoing calls as frequently as a thirsty toddler allows his mother to finish a phone conversation before he hurls an empty Sippy cup at her head and shrieks like a banshee getting sucked through a wood chipper.
Motorola, if you would like
to send me some remuneration
for this glowing advertisement,
I can be reached through
the comments section below.
So my awesome, techie-geek, computer-head, engineer-nerd husband got me a new Moto X phone. I quickly fell in love with this sleek, snazzy, slim little palm-full of happy. It’s fast. It’s intuitive. It’s gorgeous. It’s got the bamboo back panel, so I feel all Zen and eco, too. This phone knows what I want before I even finish realizing that I want it. It’s like having a second awesome, techie-geek, computer-head, engineer-nerd husband, who’s also empathically clairvoyant about my inmost needs. And who responds the very same moment I talk to him. (Joy!)
If this thing gave massages, I might actually be done with the old man.
But on the first night of the honeymoon with my new battery-operated beau (still talking about the phone here), it did something freakishly disturbing. The screen dimmed when I glanced away. Then it brightened when I turned back to it. I tried it again: Look away. Dim. Look back. Bright.
Holy smoking Rise-of-the-Machines.
“Honey!” I cried toward the living room where my tech support reclined on the couch with his evening reading material. “I think this thing sees me!”
“Uh-huh,” he responded with the nonchalance of a housecat stretched out in a four o’clock sunbeam. “The camera monitors your eyes. It’s to save on battery when you’re not actually using it.”
Phone. Is. Watching. Me.
This image prompts me to scream
like a little girl left alone overnight
in a haunted mansion.
Okay, here it is: I’m terrified of robots. Full-on phobic. I consider the Terminator movies documentaries. I blame this on my much-older brother who “babysat” my toddler self by forcing me to sit silently in front of the TV and watch things like Star Trek and Lost In Space. (Thanks for the nightmares memories, Big Bro.)
One time at Husband’s holiday office party a human-sized robot rolled around the coat-check area, engaging random party-goers in conversation. I hid behind Husband and clung to the back of his wool pea coat.
“I want to talk to it,” he whispered back over his shoulder. “See if I can mess up its conversation algorithms.”
“No!” I hissed. “You’ll drive it into a murderous frenzy and we will all DIE!”
Husband blinked at me. “It isn’t weaponized.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “That’s exactly what it wants you to think.”

Now, I hold my new phone in my hand and it stares up at me like a sweet, fuzzy little kitten. Which will swiftly mature into a fang-toothed, bloody-jowled, Savannah-stalking lion.
I see the future. The robots are coming. They’re practically here.
George Veltchev Photography
If my next phone has legs, I’m moving to the Savannah and taking my chances with the man-eating cats.


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Sunday, January 18, 2015

The End of All Being

The cover story in the Washington Post Magazine today detailed the suicide of Dennis Williams, pen name Katry Rain, an American expatriate and writer who spent the majority of his adult life in Japan. Williams emailed his suicide note to a handful of journalists hours before he jumped off the roof of his hotel in Minato-ku. (He didn’t fly.)
Why did he end his own life? Because he’d committed to paper—or at least to virtual paper—everything he had to say, and no one really cared. In other words, he had not achieved the popular success and recognition he so desperately craved.
Egocentric? Sure. Pitiful? Yeah. But each of us is the hero of his own story. How do we cope when the hero that is us seems to have failed? Would anyone want to read, let alone live, a book whose main character misses every encounter with destiny, then limps off into the sunset whimpering, “I never got a fair break.”
I’m a wannabe. It’s true. I wallow in petty fantasies of the day when something I’ve written goes viral, and all those agents and publishers who deleted my hard-slogged words with a single keystroke start ringing my phone off the hook. I imagine clucking my tongue with poorly feigned regret as I sigh, “I’m sorry, this just isn’t what I’m looking for right now.” Then I hang up and cackle like Vincent Price on a meth binge.
Sweet.
But it may never happen. Let’s be honest: it probably won’t ever happen. So… what, then?
I wonder about Dennis Williams.
Having lived and traveled abroad, I’ve found that expats generally come in two easily identifiable varieties: those who thrive socially and intellectually enough in their country of origin to successfully field the challenges and rewards of life in a foreign culture, and those who… don’t. The former group is comprised of explorers, visionaries, sociologists. The latter is peopled with the discontented, the disaffected, the dysfunctional. (If you’re an expat and you’re not sure to which genus you belong, ask around. If you can’t find any first-language speakers from your own country to query, that may point you to your answer.)
I’m sure I belonged to the first group. I’m cultured. Personable. Sensitive and savvy. (I think.)
Yet I’ve been working on this writer-thing for over two decades now. And I’m not getting terribly closer to any traditional version of success.
Maybe I’m Dennis Williams, too.
The truth is we can’t all be rock stars. I’m not sure we even want to be. Because, frankly, how many wildly successful (e.g., rich, famous, A-list) people do we find to be anything other than needy, neurotic narcissists?
A quick perusal of magazines at the grocery checkout suggests that emotionally, physically, and psychologically healthy mega-stars are plainly the exception rather than the rule. Surrounded by handlers and publicists and hangers-on whose livelihood depends on that celebrity’s ceaseless and ever-escalating performance, actors and singers and athletes get fed a steady diet of pure, organic twaddle about their awesomeness, brilliance, and value to society.
Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t like to get those kinds of strokes?
Except that’s all they are: strokes. Imagine the fear of failure, of revealing yourself to be less than they say you are. Consider the need to perform, provide, and put out more and better and higher and faster.
Miley Cyrus and her famous twerk.
Lance Armstrong and his syringes.
Amy Winehouse and the rehab she probably ought to have gone for after all.
My parents are in their seventies, and sometimes I hear the questions they’re mulling: what have I achieved? did my life count for anything? could I, should I, would I have done differently if I could go back? Don’t we all look at those questions sometimes, especially as the years stack up and mortality appears on the horizon like a dark, infinite wall we can neither see around nor get past?
I went to the Bible for an answer. Even if you’re not a religious fanatic, or a Jesus freak, or even a marginally spiritual person, Proverbs alone is a pretty spectacular trove of practical pointers. Yeah, the Bible’s usually got some pretty good advice.
Except maybe this time.
“There is nothing new under the sun. Everything is meaningless… a chasing after the wind.”
(Maybe Ecclesiastes was the wrong place to look for a motivational speech.)
Human pursuit is meaningless?
We are but a vapor?
Holy crap. I want to jump off the roof of a hotel.
A few weeks ago I got an email that felt like a punch to the gut. (I’ve never actually been punched in the gut, but I imagine this is what it feels like.) An agent who picked up one of my book proposals at a conference gave me three wonderful compliments and one abysmal prediction. The good stuff first: I have a great voice, my story is compelling, it might have gone far.
Uh-huh, you read that right: “might have”.
The downer? Because I’ve published some of my work online and it hasn’t flung the literary world into a feeding frenzy, I will never be traditionally published. How did the agent phrase it? “No traditional publishing house will ever look at you.”
Wow. And ouch. And a day or two of tears.
I’ll never receive in the mail a box of MY books, fresh off the press from my publisher. I’ll never be feted with a launch party. I’ll never be considered for a major book award.
Thus saith the agent, anyhow.
But you know what? I’m the one who gets to decide what this means to me. What this does to me. What this says about the value of my life and the course of my dreams.
I can still write. Because I love it, and because I have stories to tell. And there’s no better time in history to be an unknown wannabe writer than now; everybody and his mother’s half-cousin-once-removed has a blog and a book on Kindle.
In fact, I could even be the next E. L. James!
Okay, that was a joke. Considering that one day we will each have to stand up and give an account for our every word, I’d rather muck pit-latrines in a third-world prison than be on the business end of that interview:
GOD:   So, tell me what you did with the writing talents I gave you.
E.L.J.:   Ulp.
The end of all being is the glory of God. That’s essentially how Ecclesiastes sums up the matter. It’s incredibly, titanically, ridiculously dissatisfying to the natural, earth-bound person. Which is, I think, what ultimately sends people to the roofs of their hotels. Because if life is all about you, and your accolades, and your possessions, and your legacy, most of us are and will remain insignificant, unknown, and valueless entities in a world that can’t even forget us because it never knew us in the first place.
But what if?
What if you were created? Given a purpose, and the talents to fulfill that purpose? What if you will never know on this earth the magnitude of what your smallest decision, made in alignment with that Creator and his purpose, means to the universe? What if the ripple you made in your tiny pond reverberates through coming generations and changes the course of history?
Yet here, and now, you’re nobody. You’re just doing the next thing and living the calling of your life to the best of your ability?
I don’t think you’ll end up on a hotel roof.
And neither will I.



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