Monday, August 12, 2013

City Boy, Country Boy: When the Creepy Crawlies Invade

Traditionally, men are called upon to deal with anything that's alive and has fewer than one leg or more than four. We are the slayers of snakes, the smashers of spiders, the squashers of cockroaches, the obliterators of ants, the crushers of beetle bugs, the destroyers of centipedes, the mashers of millipedes, the killers of plant-eating worms.
I am not traditional. And let's just say that tonight, I'm glad the neighbors weren't watching, and they know that my dog squeals like a little girl. Flatulence is not the only thing that gets blamed on her.
My partner is a country boy. He can look at bugs of all manner and identify them, where they come from, how long they will be around. He can do this calmly and rationally. I am a city boy. I identify them this way: "Honey, there's a crunchy bug. Can you get it?" "J! Get in here! There is a BIG f-ing spider! Kill it NOW!" "Ahhhhh! Like, 10 things just flew in! Bring the cats!" And the infamous, "Bug bug bug there's a bug in my hair! (swat furiously at my head where there is nothing)" and the now-legendary, "Spider! Spiderweb! Getitoff! Ahhhhhhhh!" (throw the platter of cut veggies and ranch dressing ten feet in the air before sprinting down the driveway). We don't discuss the willow-fly-outside-the-restaurant incident. We'll just say a lot of diners got a good laugh.
Tonight, though, my poor, long-suffering darling came home to me having a near meltdown. It involved something that should be harmless, healthy even. Field corn.
Field corn, according to J, is corn that is grown for feed, not for grocery market. His mom got us some from his uncle's farm. It's been on the counter since last evening. This is an important point. He asked me to make him two ears tonight. No problem, I think. Shuck them, desilk them, boil them. Easy, I think. It's corn.
You are nodding in agreement. Let me stop you right there.
Field corn brings hitchhikers. These hitchhikers are sneaky. You peel back several layers of husk and  the tassel of silk and there, still very much alive, is a worm. Or a caterpillar. Or both. On the corn. That has been sitting on your counter.  If you score high on the Gay Man Scale of Squick[tm][by our girlpartner Z] as I do, you drop the corn and let out a squeal that makes the dog look sideways at you. When you get your breath, you decide that the most sensible thing to do it grab a large knife, go outside, and hack off the offending chunk of the cob with its hitchhikers. You repeat this with the second ear, this time without squealing.
I did this. I am proud. I survived the Invasion of the Corn Worm Things. And I very carefully took the cobs by two fingers, rinsed them well, and dropped them in boiling water. If there was anything else living on them, too bad.
When J got home, he was informed about the aforementioned incident.
And told that in the future, he can clean his own damn corn.

Just Dance, and Dance, and Dance, and Dance-Wii love these games.

I was not an early adopter of the Wii gaming system. When it first came out, I played a few games at friends' houses - sports, auto racing, ridiculously fun rabbit games where you got to shoot things with plungers. They were fun, but nothing that made me want to run out and buy it. This lasted until I learned about these games called, "Just Dance". If you're not familiar with the Just Dance games, and some of their copycats, the idea is this. A popular song from the 1950's-now plays. The colorful body on the screen makes movements and your try to mimic them. Sounds easy, right? Yeah, not so much. I learned this the hard way. Very publicly. VERY.A company I work with had a booth at a local Relay for Life event where people could contribute a dollar, play a round of the game, and possibly win a prize. I was monitoring the game booth when we wound up with a single player, a boy about 10 years old. I couldn't very well let him play alone. Good sport that I am, I grabbed a wiimote and stepped up. I let the kid pick the song. It was something current and, based on what I had seen so far, I thought it would be pretty easy. Set it up, push play, and off we go. I figured if he wasn’t doing too well, I’d just sort of move around and make sure he got the win.
Within about 30 seconds, I had had my pride, my decorum, and any shred of dignity I possessed handed to me.
The word you are looking for is “flail”. I did not have to try to lose. At about one minute I was just glad when the speakers did not let out a string of noises announcing that I had missed another move, and another, and another. And another. Kid looked utterly bored as he easily tripled my score without breaking a sweat.
I must confess that despite my shameful defeat and the giggling around me, I was immediately hooked. No matter how ridiculous I looked, no matter how insane the choreography on this game was (and as I saw some players doing trickier songs, I realized that some of it was pretty fancy), no matter how silly some of the animation and the music, I found myself wishing for more single players so that I could further humiliate myself in public. I had no Wii at home. None of my friends had these games. If I wanted to play, it meant spending the next three Friday nights looking like a complete goof in front of coworkers, clients, sponsors, local teenagers. Game on!
And I was not the only guy doing it! Dads did it with daughters, brothers and sisters challenged each other, groups of teens lined up for repeated plays, boys barely big enough to walk waved remotes around while everyone cheered them on. I’m pretty sure we even had some football players step up. When no one else was playing, I’d coax a buddy to play with me to draw a crowd.
But the best man-round that year was when two teenage boys were openly taunting a man in his 40’s who was hanging back, looking like he maybe wanted to play. He finally shrugged, paid his dollar, and stepped up. Two minutes later, a couple of very chastened kids and their formerly noisy buddies slunk away as the man smiled slightly, put his jacket back on, collected his female companion, and wandered off.
I am now the proud owner of a Wii and almost every Dance game on the market. And I will play it in front of anyone.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Monday Night's Alright for Fighting...Over Yarn

I know that some of you are knitters. Or you crochet. Admit it. It's ok. There are a lot of us. There must be, or the publishers would stop publishing pattern books for us and the people who run our knitting retreats would not occasionally be found in corners, curled up in balls, mumbling to themselves and a skein of worsted alpaca (alpaca - big fuzzy things with lollipop heads).

My partner and I have been part of a local knit/crochet/etc. group for about 7 years. We are not your Gramma's knitters, unless your Gramma and her friends are really cool. We meet in a side room at a local restaurant, and our conversations are PG-13 on a good night. The ratio of women to men is about 3:1, and if at least one person per night does not get the B-word screamed at them, something is every wrong. Weekly Show-and-tell runs the gamut from freshly spun wool to handmade glass penis beads to fresh tattoos to yarn spun from the chest-hair of musk ox (it's called quivit, and one good sized ball will set you back more than a box of good cigars). We've got farmers, housewives, engineers, programmers, retirees, small business owners, college students, nurses, gamer geeks...people who seemingly have nothing in common except a love of making things and minds that roll around in the same gutter.

I tell you all of this as background for what happened the other night. You've probably heard of Dirty Santa...each person contributes a gift and then takes a gift in turn, and when it's your turn you either pick from the pile or steal someone else's stuff. After a set number of "steals", the item is declared dead. We do one of these in December, one about June, and one in the fall called "Black Sheep", which is everyone's chance to offload their unloved, unwanted, and sometimes just plain hideous yarn on someone else. The good part is, you get rid of stuff you hate. The bad part is that you are revealing to everyone that at one time, you thought that that red and silver tinsel-and-pom pom yarn was awesome. The best part is that one person's trash is another person's treasure. The scary part is what people will do for that treasure.

So on this night, I am running the Black Sheep Dirty Santa, outfitted in my usual work clothes (jeans, shirt, wookboots), and wearing a pink-and-purple tiara so I could be seen in the crowd. Part of being the Sheep Runner is keeping order. Usually, Black Sheep is a pretty easy gig, since people tend to play keep away with the bulk of the items, planning their steals so they do NOT get stuck with something. But this time, there was a lot of Really Good Stuff in the mix. And this means war. I'm barely 5'4". There are a lot of pointy sticks. There are two other men there (F-M ratio 5:1). One is a guest and more interested in starting trouble than referreeing it. The other is trying to untangle a huge tangled pile of chainmaille rings. I am utterly alone. The game (12 players, 24 gifts, each player has 2 numbers) begins quite sedately until #4 steals from #2 who steals from #1 who then takes from the gift pile. #5. #6. #7 steals from #2 (who has now been stolen from twice) who steals from #5 who steals from #1 who calls #5 a b----who then climbs over a chair and the person in it to steal from #6 who takes from the gift pile. Now, finally, we move along to #8. I have taken up a position against the wall and shout my orders, or I am going to be trampled. The whispering has begun, as partnerships form to negotiate who is going for what, with The Big Male guest, well known for instigating trouble, smiling in a most unnerving way. #9, #10.

#12 is wondering if anything she wants will still be alive when her first number is up. I am now standing on a chair, trying to make myself heard and not get run over. The steals are running long now, six or seven a turn. #13. #14 to #3 to #8 to #6 to #9 to #10 to #1 to the gift pile. We've got a running tally now. 5 b----hes, 3 you a**hole, a sprinkling of F-Us, some "THAT WAS MINE'S, numerous threats of parking lot theft, at least one "I know where you live", and an offer to trade a three year old for that bag of cashmere. Despite my tiara, I am rendered powerless to do anything more than keep track of what number we are on, tell people to hold up "in play" items, and hope that that last "I will cut you," was someone talking to their yarn. Also note, the room has a gigantic window open to the bar, so those people got a lot more than they bargained for.

An hour and a half later, it is over. Everyone has two somethings. The wheeling and dealing is underway - bargains, trades, promises, favors, outright bribery, shameless manipulation, begging, wheedling, and even Big Man trying to dash out the door with an armful of goods, only to be bodily in his tracks by two women half his size.

It seems knitting really is a full contact sport.

So Many Books, So Few Choices: Would I Read That in Public? Would You?

This is probably a little old-fashioned, what with the ubiquity of e-readers and smartphones, but there are still plenty of us who read paper books when we are waiting for something, or find ourselves stuck in a doctor's waiting room looking for something to read. The question is, what do we read, and why?
There are plenty of books out there targeted to a male audience - action-adventure novels, male-progtagonist mysteries, science fiction series, how-to-get-ahead-in-business, biographies of great (or at least celebrated) men, and even a growing amount of literary fiction, with a tendency towards male main characters that play into the sterotype of the wild, troubled, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll manchild or the man-on-the-wrong-path who-needs-a-woman-to-set-him-right guy. And books in all of these genres are all well and good. People reading and discussing what they read is good. But what about those of us who want to read something else, or find ourselves choosing between staring at a wall or flipping through April's Cosmo or Modern Moms Monthly?
When I'm looking for a book to travel with, I consider my selections carefully. First, where am I going? Am I going to a coffee house or a lunch-for-one where everyone else is occupied or I'll be in a tiny booth? Am I getting oil-changed and sitting in an auto shop waiting room? Am I at a ball game waiting for the first pitch? Am I going to be with co-workers? Am I going to be in an airport? Am I on a long drive and stopping for food at a small town diner? In other words, what is the likelihood that I am going to be taunted-or worse-for my choice of reading material?
I know there are going to be plenty of you who say that I should just do what I want and not care what other people think, but let's be real. Some of us have to care. Some of us, by virtue of our appearance and size, are bully magnets, even in middle age. Some of us don't want confrontation. Some of us have spent our whole lives fighting to be left alone and are tired of fighting. Suck it up and deal with it, you say? Man up? Just ignore them, don't be such a wuss?Thank you, you've just reinforced the reason why I'm not likely to ever take a kitchen-cozy mystery out in public.
As much as we'd like to pretend that we men today are more open and less judgemental, consider what you'd think if you saw a man reading a Ladies Home Journal in the dentist's office or DIY for Moms in the tire shop holding pen , or "The Joy Luck Club" or anything with a group of women on the cover while in queue at the DMV. You'd probably look twice and wonder why the heck he was reading that. Would you make an assumption about his sexuality? His manliness? His job? Would you elbow your buddy and nod your head at the guy? What if you knew he coached high school football or was the State Bar President? If you asked a guy who was laughing hysterically at his e-reader what he was reading and he said,"Tina Fey's new book," would you keep talking or move away? What if that same guy showed up at your house the next day to fix the toilet YOU broke while trying to fix it? Would you be nervous?
Myself, I try to limit what assumptions people make. I never leave home without a few books. I have them stashed in my car and office. But they are, by and large, "man-approved" authors and titles (side note: I own all of these authors because I LOVE their work. If I strictly wanted to be socially acceptable, this would be a sci-fi/action/sports list and I'd be miserable). Dan Brown. Preston/Childs. Chuck Pahlaniuk. Anthony Bourdain. Hunter S. Thompson. I have a few other "women's authors/books" mixed in. Fannie Flagg. Sarah Waters. Isabel Allende. Jane Austen. If I'm going to actively read in public, I choose carefully. Reading in public while eating a meal alone is an act of social rebellion in itself. No need to push my luck.
I was at Book Expo America (huge, HUGE book trade show) a few months ago, and at more than a few booths I noticed the segregation of "men's" and "women's" titles. If a publisher was promoting books targeting these audiences, the books were segregated within the booth. This was especially true in the religion and children's area and with popular fiction titles. It was less true in the university press and novelty press booths. I guess academia and humor are gender-free? And generally speaking, men were pitching the "men's" books and women were pitching the "women's" books, and books about politics and history were usually displayed in the "men's" area. It's not hard to see where some of the core reinforcing of stereotypes is coming from.
I wonder what would happen if all books were printed with black covers with shiny black writing, so that no picture or gender-specific color could give away the contents. Would men be more open to reading, say, the history of women in cinema, or a novel by Oprah Winfrey, or a biography of Celine Dion, if no one could see it?
Maybe that's one of the reasons FOR the growing popularity of one has to know what you are reading. A guy could even get away with a Harlequin romance...provided he could manage not to blush.

Friday, August 9, 2013

You Knit, We'll Mend: An Open Letter to Tony Stewart

Dear Tony,
I'm sorry to hear that you broke your leg, although after watching videos of sprint car wrecks, I'm surprised more people are not more broken. That must be one heck of a rush, racing in those tiny things rather than the relative safety of a stock car.
So it looks like you are going to be laid up for a while. I'm sure you are already bored as heck and itching for something to do. Might I suggest...knitting?
Yes. You read that right. Knitting. Right now if your chihuahua could read this, it would be nodding in agreement and dreaming of a big drawer full of little sweaters.
I can hear you saying, "I'm NASCAR! I'm Tony-freakin'-Stewart! Knitting? WhaHUH? No way! Knitting? But I'm a guy! I...pshhh, whatever."
Men knit. We do. Lots of us. Little boys, college kids, high school lacrosse players who make a fortune knitting stick cozies other players. Truck drivers do it. Doctors do it. Engineers do it. Carpenters do it. Soldiers making gun cozies in deserts do it. And even some of your fans do it. Male fans, too.
While your leg is mending, you can be creating something. It's not that hard. You seem to be pretty bright, and you will be welcomed into the fold of Men Who Knit. We need every body we can get. We've come a long way, but not so far that people don't stop us in public and ask what we are doing, and then respond like we've just found the cure for the common cold or  turned unicorn poop into wine. The women knitters don't get this kind of response. People ask what they are making, not  question what they are seeing with their very own eyes. A high-profile dude like yourself would do wonders to help us reach our goal, which is that of not causing shock and awe with a couple of sticks and some string.
And guess what, Smoke! You can take your knitting to the track, too. There are huge online discussions dedicated to this: which projects are best for which tracks and which races; which tracks' security will fuss about your needles; which tracks are too dirty for "good" yarn; which races require easy, no-think projects and which are ok for things that need counting; which tracks have a lot of down time in traffic or between admission and race; what seats are least like to result in beer-soakings. You have time in your trailer when I'm sure you need to relax and regroup. One your leg is healed, knitting can be your go-to chill out activity, and when the scarf pattern you are working on refuses to cooperate, you can let of some steam by rubbing paint at 160mph.
And here's another bonus...if you are ever in the market for a woman, knitting is like catnip. And there's a good chance that she'll knit too, so on those night when you are working late in the garage, she's going to be too pre-occupied with her own project to care.
There's also a special comraderie among men who knit in public. We are choosing to do something that invites derision, name-calling, weird looks, people pointing at us, all the things that happen to people who act outside of the norm. You'd probably be safe, though - anyone who has seen your skill at throwing a punch while still wearing your helmet knows you are a force to be reckoned with. The rest of us just want you in the club.
And you don't have to knit anything fluffy or frilly, unless you want to. There are dozens of books now for men who knit (or crochet - that is allowed ,too), and even one for Men Who Knit and the Dogs Who Love Them. If you're down for a long while, I'm sure you could even knit a carbon fiber car cozy, or a big bag to haul your prize money around in, maybe a couple of nice polish cloths for your ride, maybe an ear-flap hat for those red-flag races when it's fifty degrees and they are trying to clean someone's car off the track.
We men who knit are violating all sorts of social norms and breaking a whole lot of gender rules. Join us. You're a rebel. Rebel with us. It's a lot more fun than surfing daytime TV while your leg (pardon the pun) knits.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

For the Love of Cupcakes: You Can't Avoid These Pretties

There is no macho way to eat a cupcake. For that matter, I'm not sure that there is such a thing as a macho cupcake. You can paint the frosting camoflage or put bacon on top of it or give it a name like "Cold Chocolate Steel" or spike it with habanero paste, but when it comes right down to it, you have a sweet little cake with frosting on it, and not matter how old you are, the desire to lick that frosting off first never goes away.

Cupcakes are one of those trecherous social buggers that, no matter who you are or where you work or how much money you make, you will be confronted with in your adult life. It may be at a party, or on a date, or on birthday day at your workplace, or at a child's party. They may not be as hot as they were, but they are still wildly popular, and something that even a non-cook/ home-cook can make, smear with frosting, put some sprinkles on, and deliver to a roomful of smiling people. They can also appear with inches high, wildly colored frosting dotted with sticky, crunchy goodness, just at the moment when you are schmoozing with a client you are trying to land, a boss you are trying to impress, or the person hiring for the job you desperately want. And you feel the panic start to rise as they offer you one.

So what do you do? They are not eating one, so you have no one to mirror.

Do you lick the frosting? There is no way to do that that does not look obscene. Do you bite it? You can't eat the frosting and the cake together unless you can unhinge your jaws or turn into a giant snake. You don't want to take the frosting off and dye your fingers purple and green, and you just realized that as soon as you eat it, your mouth and teeth are going to be dyed. There's nowhere to put it anyway. Peeling the paper off is useless. This is all going through your mind in a split second as the person looks at you expectantly and tells you that their significant other baked them, now obligating you to eat it. You decide to take small bites from the frosting with small licks where necessary, and when it gets down to jawsize, cake + frosting, you will bite it. This plan goes fine, but when you go home, feeling like you have impressed your peers and dodged a social bullet, you find out that "Dainty Man Eats Cupcake" has gone viral on YouTube and you will never live down the purple and green nightmare.

The other place where you are likely to encounter these dangerous little morsels is at school or other kids' functions. While these probably lack dye-laden inches-high frosting, they are fraught with perils of their own. There's a good chance that a small child helped make them, which means that even if they look or taste like compressed sawdust, you taste one, because the child will notice that no one touched them. Some will taste good. Some will be well-frosted. There are kids around. It's ok to lick off the frosting first, or swipe it off with your finger. You can also peel off the paper and eat a frosting/cake combo. You can have more than one - in fact, it will probably be expected. But no mattter what you do, no matter how careful you are, you will wind up with frosting on your hands, face, facial hair, nose. You will wipe your hands on your pants. A teacher, parent, or other perfectly spotless grown-up will want to speak with you when you have a mouthful of red velvet with cream cheese frosting. A child will drop the last one with the Batman ring and have a meltdown while you are on the phone with your manager. You will get home and find your dog licking you for the molecule-sized crumb left on your shirt.

And yet, despite the potential for doom each time you encounter one of these pretty little treats, you'll find yourself powerless to resist the offer or the platter, and sooner or later you'll make your own, and start trying different combos of flavors, maybe buying a few piping bags and pastry tips, perhaps even a cupcake carrier. Because once you are hooked, you're going to want to get every guy you know to share the love...and the shame.

I am a Stereotype, but Not the Type You Think....

Yes, I'm a Stereotype...But Not in the Way You Think: Confessions of a Sort-of-Still-a-Slob
This post came about after this instant message convo with my partner.

J: maybe you just needto chage perspective maybe it could be somethign such that the pointis yes one man really does need that many bags..or so he tells me

me: LOL I have just as many - they are all just empty. the contents are spilled around the car. and the house. and my office...

J: well there is that. chaos fairys?

me: LOL yes ties in nicely to back to school

- - - - - - - - - - - -

My partner is an admitted bag...well, let's just say he has an extensive collection of bags and carry-arounds and leave it at that. He's very organized and tidy. I am not. Whatever stereotypical notion you have about gay men being extremely neat and fastidious, you can toss it now.

I am not that stereotype. The stereotype of the guy who drops stuff in random places, who covers the kitchen counter with litter and the table with whatever he is holding when he comes in? Yeah, that's me. The one who's 4-seater car seats 1 and a half on a good day? That's me, too. The dude who puts the carton back with that much milk in it? Ditto. You don't have to worry about me leaving muddy shoes in the living room or dirty dishes under the couch...anymore...but one end table is hopelessly lost under cut fabric and and spools of thread (that's another post altogether). I'm an expert at putting toilet paper on the roller and the hand towels back on the rack, but trust me, that's because I was tired of inconveniencing myself.

This is the time of year when thousands of parents and caretakers are trying to get their kids ready for back-to-school. They are teaching the youngest ones to organize their papers, pencils, markers, and other assorted school supplies. They are reminding the older ones that it will be easier to keep track of things this year if the use their folders, notebooks, and bags to organize their papers, pens, calculator, etc. They are pleading with their teenagers to not just cram everything in their backpacks this year and hope it won't get lost. They are telling themselves that because they let the kids pick their own thumbdrives that they won't be lost by the third day, and their new uniform sweater won't get lost under their bed (where few adults dare to go) by the fourth week.

For some kids, these lessons are barely necessary. They are genetically programmed to put-and keep-everything where it belongs. They emerge from the womb ready to organize their toys, books, onesies. For other kids, they can more-or-less get stuff where it needs to go from the first time they scream. For the rest of us, we are functionally incapable of keeping our home and car space neat and tidy.

My parents, poor souls, tried. They begged, pleaded, grounded, bribed, cajoled, threatened, argued, took my stuff away, gave it back, promised, bought organizational tools, took away my phone and tv, gave them back, stripped my room, gave up, lather, rinse, repeat. Around age 17, they gave up. I'm not sure my partner has ever forgiven them.

I've gotten better over the years, in the house and my office, anyway. My car, in the words of my partner, looks, " it needs to be picked up and shaken out." Except for dead food, it is about as trashed as a vehicle can get. My mother has threatened me with a Smart car. A truck is just an invitation to make a bad habit worse.

I don't believe that men are inherently slobs. Nor do I believe that someone should pick up after us. My mother used to ask if I thought she was my maid. The answer was no. I did not expect anyone to pick up after me. I just didn't pick up after myself. I think men, straight, gay, bi, whatever, are completely capable of cooking and cleaning for themselves. We can do laundry, iron, sweep, wash dishes, wipe down countertops, make beds, even scoop cat boxes. But for some of us, putting things where they belong when we should, or picking them up when we drop them, is just...impossible.

There are so many more interesting things to do. I could pick up those socks - but there is a book next to them. I could clean out my car - but that's time I could spend sewing. I could shelve my bags of stuff in the garage that I cleaned out of my car - but I just got a new magazine. I could hang up my clean clothes - but our out-of-town girlfriend is on Skype.

So maybe it's not that I am an unrepentant slob. Maybe I have too many other things to oh look! a butterfly! Anyone else see it? Squirrel! SQUIRREL!!!!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

If You're Loud Enough, They Won't See You: How to suck at volleyball (and not get caught).

If You're Loud Enough, They Won't See You: How to suck at volleyball (and not get caught).
Read it again. You didn't read it wrong. There is at least one place on this earth where the louder you are, the more invisible you are. At least, that's the only explanation I can find. If you have another, please let me know.

I play volleyball in an adult rec league. This makes people around me blink, because here in the South, volleyball is mostly a girls' high school/college sport. Several of my coworkers had never even heard of men's volleyball outside of the Olympics, or maybe the scene in Top Gun, or an accidental stop on ESPN___. I was raised in Southern California in the 80's, when volleyball was fairly popular and a lot of high schools fielded girl's (fall) and boy's (spring) teams (and still do). I've played on and off for roughly 25 years. I'm not a great player-I'm pretty ok to pretty good, but not great. I'm only 5'4" and can't jump very high, injuries have made me unable to set with my hands, and I'm not much of a hitter. I'm also not a noisy or flashy player. I don't yell, grunt, holler, trash-talk, dive, pancake, fling myself around the court, squeak my shoes, or order people around. I'm fairly invisible....unless I make a mistake.

And here is the strange paradox. Our rec league is probably 50% men. I' m singling my gender out because this paradox does not seem to apply to the women. In every game, people make mistakes. I've played plenty of times where I've counted points lost by myself and by other guys on the court. In a lot of cases, I lose fewer points and make fewer errors. Even looking at percentages of attempts and completions, regardless of whether these are sets, hits, digs, serves, my percentages are better than some of the other guys (Guy1 fails 3/6 of his attempts, I fail 2/5 of mine; Guy2 fails 4 of 7 attempts, I fail 2 of 7 of mine, each of us is responsible for 1 point). But Guy1 and Guy2 are sought-after players, and I am complained about...I am the bad player.

Here is my theory. Guy1 and Guy2 FAIL LOUDLY. They FAIL BIG. They fail in loud, flashy ways. They yell, they grunt, they jump up and come down hard. When they dive for the ball, they take their time getting up or throw in a shoulder roll. They move away from their errors-quickly. They take up space on the court. They leap - sometimes into the net. They serve and hit far out-of-bounds, proof of their strength. They are no better or worse than 80% of the other players, but they are perceived to be amazing.
Guys like me, we fail quietly. And everybody notices. And remembers. Our out-of-bounds are not from massive overpower-maybe just a little too much. When we hit the ball in the net, in softly bounces out, rather than leaving the net shaking for 30 seconds. If we land on the ground, we are up fast, or we are likely to get stepped on. If we biff a serve or misplace a set, there are subtle (or not) headshakes, a little bit of movement to crowd us out of position, someone ready to take our ball, even if we had a clean shot. This is what people remember. Not the hard hit we picked up. Not the two aces. Not that nice little shot into the back corner. Not the play out of the net or the hustle to save the ball you shanked. Not the tip into the only hole on the other side. Not the 5 serve returns in a row we popped up into the air. It doesn't matter if we are more consistent or have better skills with better percentages. Because for some reason, people don't see that. They only see our mistakes.

The one conclusion I can draw is that some people are drawn to the loud, the bright, the visible, the obvious, and that's what they see and remember, the big yell or the big splat. They don't remember that that was a lost point. They remember the flash and the dash. They don't remember that someone got run over so that he could get that ball, which was way out of his range. They remember that he sprinted across the court to save the day (I am not kidding - I see guys get congratulated all the time for saves that were not even close to saves),

So I finish with a question and two takeaways:
1. If you can think of any other reason for why this Inability-to-See-Noisy-Failure paradox exists, or any other situation in which it exists, please tell me.
2. If you are going to fail, fail epically, in the loudest and brightest manner possible.
3. Real men do play volleyball.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

In the Way-Back machine: My dad's 1965 Plymouth Sport Fury

The car wasn't candy apple red. It was white, with silver on silver chrome stripping my dad painstakingly pieced together from pieces in junkyards across the LA basin. The seats, what was once called vinyl but would not be "faux leather", were candy apple red, just like the classic Mustang but instead seamed with matching read thread inside a boat of a Plymouth convertible.

The car had personality. It sat and looked at you. It didn't dare you like most muscle cars, or ask you to take a leisurely family picnic drive like you see in those old auto ads. It told you it had been around, and was good for another go if you were game. The hubcaps were original, but not high-shined. They had seen the rougher side of the road and lived to tell about it. The underside of the bumpers, too. No matter how my dad buffed them, they were never like new. And just like men lift their shirts or hitch their pants to share scars of this fall or that scrape or these stitches, when this car lifted its hood, there, clear as day, were three bullet holes. The outer skin was never penetrated, but this relic of the days when no one cared what emitted from a tailpipe had stopped bullets from hitting something more fragile than a ton of steel.

I don't know what it was before it came to live with us. It came from a used "classic" car lot, a sort of halfway house for old cars that were too far gone for someone to parade at a car show, but not quite ready for a parts yard or a car crusher. It has one previous owner who had sold it for cash and never looked back. It had been lingering for a while before my dad took it home. I imagine that if it could have, it would have been sitting on a porch, smoking a cigarette, wishing for something to do, wanting to talk to someone.

Once it came to us, my dad did his best to make it great again. He bleached and scrubbed the cloth top to near-white, but never could get the vinyl rear window better than cloudy yellow. The top mechanisms worked cleanly, but with noisy complaints. It ran perfectly, even when called upon to drag cargo behind it, but it never asked to rev to a challenge. Somehow, it lacked the heart. Later, as my dad grew more ill, it lived for longer stretches in the garage, with one if its final insults coming when it played nursery to a stray cat who decided that its front footwell was a fine place to birth a litter of kittens. I can't remember it being driven after that. I think that even if it could have moved, it wouldn't have.

But its story does not end there. My dad, sensing that this piece of 1965 history was broken-hearted by its second abandonment, set it free. He knew it needed to be needed. It became the property of a man with teenagers and perked up, finding a new purpose in escorting teenagers around football fields at homecoming events, carrying them to proms. It became a status symbol for the young, the cool uncle who let you sip his beer, the dad who didn't care if you broke curfew, the neighbor who let you polish his motorcycle when a cute girl walked by.

The last I heard, it was on its fourth incarnation, this time as a teacher, being torn apart and rebuilt and torn apart and rebuilt in a high school auto shop.

I've never quite forgiven my dad for not giving me that car when I turned 16. I wanted it so bad. We'd had it ten years by that time, and it was about that time that he sent it away. I loved it almost irrationally. I'd grown up riding in it, had even gotten to "drive it". I'd spent many hours with my raybans on, in the passenger seat with the top down, thinking I was the coolest kid ever, in this white monster with the red seats. Not because it was fast, or slick, but because there was nothing else like it. Mustangs, Chargers, El Caminos, El Dorados, cars built with attitude, those were everywhere. This was a lone creature. Not perfect, not flashy, but you just had to look.

Dancing with Myself...and the grocery cart, and the parking lot lines, and the radio...

There are some things that I just can't resist. Linoleum is a horrible temptation. Wide open spaces, ditto. Hardwood floors, old, new, shiny, roughed up. Almost any hard surface. Slick floors and socks. A parking lot will do. A good beat. Or lyrics that say something, that invite you to show them to people.

My feet are shameless. They haven't learned yet that it's not proper to tap dance in line at the grocery store, or mambo on the corners at a volleyball game, or pirouette while I'm supposed to be Skypeing or weaving or sewing. My legs and arms don't get that 38 year old men aren't supposed to skip across parking lots or chasse down hallways, arms in extended center third. My shoulders, the only part of me not confined in a car, don't realize that someone in the next car probably has a camera phone.

I dance in my head. I watch dancers and I dance for them, or with them. Some tiny piece of my brain, whenever there is music on, is creating. Whenever I think about it, or oftentimes when I don't, my body gets in on the act. I don't long to be on the stage. I lack too many essentials-line, extension, spin-to ever be a successful performer. I just want to create for others, to see the dancers in my head multiplied on a stage, to see the teeny tiny steps I work on obsessively when I find a perfect song turn into something more than what I make in my living room, in my rubber ducky bathrobe and mismatched slipper socks.

You Can't Have Too Many Dads...or Moms: The importance of chosen family

If you ask most people about their families, they'll name a dad, a mom, perhaps a stepparent or two, a sibling or three, Meemaw and PopPop and Nana and Grampa Bill , aunts and uncles, the cousins they used to play with and now only see once a year. Ask a little deeper, like if they seem them much or where they live, and you'll probably get one of two responses. Their faces will light up and they'll talk about the time their mom fell into the birthday case or Uncle Rick forgot his wife's birthday and had to sleep in the garage for a week. Or they will shut down and give brief answers, that Dad left when they were a kid, everyone lives hundreds of miles away, that they get together at Thanksgiving but it's an obligation.

Ask them, then, about their chosen family. "What do you mean?", they ask. "What do I mean?", you ask yourself. "What do YOU mean?", you ask me.

I think that chosen family are the people we choose to surround ourselves with, the people who are so often closer to us than our blood relatives, the people we want to call the minute something good or bad happens, the people we lean on, and the people who do all these things in return...not that we always want them to. Stop for a minute right now. You can think of them. The guy you call bro who really is like a brother, minus the years of punching each other in the car. The woman you'd never, ever even think about putting your hands on, because she's the person who helps you through your toughest days. The old guy down the street who showed you how to fry a turkey without setting yourself or the house on fire, and who you would never dream of not  inviting to the 4th of July BBQ. The people who you tell the things you can't tell your family, because you don't want to disappoint or upset them, or have them judge you because you went to the ballet on Saturday night. The guys who are willing to make Aunt Sherry's Christmas Cookie Yummies disappear because you can't bear to tell her you'd rather eat lawn clippings. Your golf buddies who never make you feel like you did something wrong because you lost a case last week. The clerks who would never, ever tell anyone that you rented Mona Lisa Smile but are always willing to talk about your new favorite rom-com.

These are the people who keep your secrets, no matter how much they want to get a laugh at a party or one-up the loudmouth at the bar, but always know the right time to drop a "Remember when..." to loosen the tension in a room. The people who will never see your wrinkles, gray hair, or spare tire, or get keenly jealous that while they have all three, haven't aged a day since you turned 30. These are the family that are there for all of the things that our own families can't be part of, or that we want or need to withhold from them. My partner's mom doesn't need to know how excited we get when our girlfriend designs a new scarf pattern, but we'll tell our chosen sisters-and even a few bros. His uncle doesn't need to know that the dog ate part of the bathroom rug and then barfed it up. He'd get sick with worry, while our dog friends would tell us what their dogs ate. And when we're having feeling-rotten days, my best friend and I usually hole up and commiserate, and my mom is none the wiser. She and I are very close, but some things I just don't need to burden an aging parent with.

Do we fight with our chosen family? Yes. Do we go months without talking to them? Yes. Do we drift apart and drift together? Yes. Do different members crash and rub and require separation at birthdays and weddings? Absolutely. They are, like us, human. But we absolutely need them.

But we choose them. We are not born to them or them to us. And every man, whether he wants to admit it or not, can use an extra brother, sister, mom, dad...or some of each.

Yes, I Do Need All of Those Pink Notebooks-School supply shopping on tax-free weekend

Yes, I Do Need All of Those Pink Notebooks-School supply shopping on tax-free weekend

Unless you've been living completely isolated from the rest of America, you've probably heard that the busiest, scariest, craziest shopping days of the year are The Day After Thankgiving and The Day After Christmas. I've been to both. Many times. And I won't disagree. But my vote for
#3 is Back-to-School Tax-Free Weekend in Alabama.

A little background: For first weekend in August in Alabama , most of the state charges no sales tax on school-related items, including the usual things like pens, pencils, lunch boxes, folders, backpacks, etc. But it also extends to clothes, shoes, and most computers.

So let's do the math. National retailers cut their prices and some offer special "penny" or "quarter" items (usually with limits, minimum purchases, only on certain item/sku #s, or other fine print). Computers up to a certain dollar amount are tax-free. Each school has a different supply list for each grade. And when you are outfitting one or more kids for school, 8-10% savings adds up.

Let the feeding frenzy begin.

By mid-weekend, aisles are packed with mostly moms, many with kids and strollers in tow, trying to manage supply lists and baskets. Items are scrambled on shelves, someone has left a soda on top of the stack of composition books, someone else is screaming because the price came up wrong, people are gazing hopefully into empty bins, the laptops and tablets have all mysteriously powered down, the store staff is trying to maintain order...and you are a lone man, grinning, gleefully pushing a basket full of  school supplies, heavy on the only remaining colors-hot pink and pale orange-topped with a bargain bag candy.

Do you want to stop people dead in their tracks? This will do it. You' ll be looked at with a mix of disbelief and suspicion. You'll hear a few whispers. People will subtlely reroute their children. Those two teenagers over there will point and snicker. Someone is sure to ask you how old your kids are and when you say you don't have any, the conversation will end, because while people are great at making assumptions, they are not as good at blurting out genuine questions. Your complete lack of shame or apology will confuse them, as will your excitement at finding the last two packs of 15 cent pencils and the last $1 box of 64 crayons. When you give a loud fist-pump "YES!" as someone puts back a $2 24 pack of clicker pens and you snag it, heads will turn and a path will clear. When a kid asks you a question about where something is, his parent will shush and remove him. The other lone man in the store, standing next to you by the erasers, complains under his breath that he just needs register tape but he can't find it in the chaos and slinks off, and you mumble the expected sympathy while keeping you eyes peeled for a left pack of 1cent graphe paper. You see it and maneuver through carts, scooping it up with victory fists while people stare. In men-should-act-like-men land, solo guys shopping for school supplies with enthusiasm that should be reserved for a winning touchdown in the last 2 seconds is just not right. Especially not when his toenails are painted blue, a gift from his friend's little girl.

But it does get better. The biggest, the best payoff of the weekend is when you go to check out, and the cashier asks, "How many kids do you HAVE?", you reply none, and they ask, "Then what....?" And you get to tell them that you are donating everything to _______ charity. Or that you are a teacher. Or that they are for a friend who homeschools. Or that you run a tutoring program. Or that you are going on a missionary trip. Or that you are shipping the load to the tornado zone in Oklahoma. And suddenly the three women behind you, who gave you the stink-eye 10 minutes earlier before pulling their children closer to them, get very, very, very quiet.