My essay, “Some Jokes Just Aren’t Funny,” is now live at Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. Check it out.
Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies
If you’re a fan of pretty much any professional sport outside of golf or bowling, you’ve probably heard announcers lamenting the increasing age and declining skills of once-great athletes. Recently I read an article about a Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback, referred to in this instance as “the aging Terrance Newman.” According to Newman’s Wikipedia entry, he was born on September 4th, 1978. That means that in roughly three weeks from the time of this writing, he will turn 33 years old.
Randy Couture and Dan Henderson are considered exceptional specimens in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, not just because they have won multiple championships in multiple weight classes but also because they both competed at high levels into their 40s. Couture finally retired in 2011 after losing to former Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida via front kick to the face (think Daniel-san’s crane kick in the original Karate Kid, a move heretofore thought to be purely fictional). Couture is in his late 40s. Henderson, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion who is likely headed back to the UFC, is around 41.
Sticking with the MMA world, for a moment, we should consider the case of Rashad Evans. Until his recent TKO of Tito Ortiz, Evans had been out of action for 14 months. Most people thought he would struggle with so-called “ring rust,” the condition stemming from long layoffs. Train all you want, the philosophy goes, but if you aren’t actually competing, you don’t know how your body or your mind will respond in the heat of battle. Dana White, the bombastic UFC president, said of Evans, “He’s 31. He’s not 26.” You’d think that Evans had turned gray and wrinkly overnight, that he used a walker or a wheelchair, that he might knock over the glass containing his dentures on the way to his fifth bathroom trip of the night.
The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that running backs decline sharply after their 30th birthdays. Gymnasts and swimmers enjoy an even shorter shelf life.
All of this has always seemed patently ageist to me. But at the same time, it seems to be true. For every Randy Couture or Brett Favre, there are thousands of athletes who never play past their mid-30s, when their “advanced” age and allegedly declining skills make them unappealing at best, completely disposable at worst.
Yet, for all of my grousing about the ageist trend in athletics, I also can’t exactly argue with its logic. I am currently 40 years old and no longer an athlete. And even I suffer from aches and pains that my 20-year-old self—hell, even the 35-year-old version of me—did not believe in and had never experienced.
I often tell my students that I have the perfect evidence of life’s unfairness, and it is this: at 40 years old, I get both gray hairs and pimples.
Oh, I’m no silver fox, at least not yet. But every day I find more gray hair—in my beard, at my temples, even on parts of my body that had always been covered with downy dark hair. Everything seems to be bleaching out, slowly but inexorably. Yet as I look at those stray gray hairs, I often find new zits in my hairline, on my head, even on my face, as if I were still a teenager readying for a date. It’s just not fair. If you have gray hair, you should be too old for pimples, and if you must regularly use Clearasil, you should be too young for gray hair.
My goatee is probably the most startling evidence of my hair’s transformation from young person’s to that of someone who might reasonably expect a recruiting letter from the AARP. Once it reflected all the aspects of my heritage. Mostly the hairs were dark, almost black, though in some cases they looked blonde or red. My beard epitomized America: democratic, diverse. Walt Whitman would have been proud of it. Now, though, it consists mostly of two colors: dark brown and gray, with the gray quickly gaining prominence. If I still have it at 50, it will probably look like I just stepped out of an arctic blizzard.
Athletes’ faces undergo similar transformations. It happened to Brett Favre. About the same time that gray began to appear on Favre’s hair and on his chin, his face got a little more wrinkled every year, and for every interception he threw, more and more people questioned how much longer he could compete. Never mind that he kept taking teams deep into the playoffs and breaking records; because he had passed some tipping-point age, he would forever after be suspect.
Of course, part of the reasoning was that he felt the hits more than he used to, that it took him longer to recuperate. And again, here is where I cannot argue with the logic of the age factor.
Before I reached my mid-30s, I had undergone surgery on a diseased appendix. I had had perhaps four cavities. I could engage in pretty much whatever physical activity I wanted and move reasonably well the next day. But around my 36th year, I suddenly started feeling pain in places where I didn’t know I had places.
I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. Though they had come in years before, they had never really bothered me. Suddenly they made my jaws ache. I had two very minor procedures to remove a surface-level basal-cell carcinoma from my chest. I discovered that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, though not the highly embarrassing kind that plagued poor J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers; it bothers me just enough to make travel uncomfortable. My ear, nose, and throat doctor discovered that I needed a septoplasty and a turbinate reduction. After that procedure, I could breathe normally for the first time in my life, which is when I began to snore. A trip to the neurologist and a couple of sleep studies revealed that I had mild-to-moderate sleep apnea.
None of these conditions were serious or life-threatening. But they piled up in a relatively short time, and after a life of good health. They were particularly disturbing in light of my family medical history, which includes cancers of various kinds, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. One of these days I expect a Riley newborn to skip all the preliminaries and just spontaneously combust.
I’ve taken precautions against these and pretty much every other major issue that my doctors and I can think of. But there’s only so much you can do to prevent health problems as you get older. It’s not really fair. Most of us go from never having to think about our health, or exercise, or what we eat and drink, to worrying about all of it all the time. It’s like being in a car that goes from zero to near-death in five years.
Then there are the aches and pains that accompany getting older. Right now, my right shoulder inexplicably hurts at the joint, especially when I raise the arm above chest level, and most especially when I have to raise it and lift something, or even remove a tight pull-over shirt. I’m not sure if the problem lies in the bone or the muscles or the ligaments and tendons, but something’s wrong, and time—plus lots of exercise or the lack thereof—hasn’t helped. My neck is stiff most of the time and pops painfully when I turn it too far to the right. And now even my jaw hurts a little on one side. Where do these problems come from? What did I do to cause them, if anything? It’s all a mystery, and the only way to solve it is to go to the doctor yet again, to undergo even more tests, and/or to take even more medication.
Speaking of which—I currently take a pill that lowers my cholesterol. I take another that helps my stomach and my poor sleep patterns. A third helps regulate my triglycerides. And I also take over-the-counter medication for joint pain. I fondly remember the days when all I needed was a Tylenol or a BC powder.
When I look at how my body has changed regardless of circumstances, I believe that it’s a miracle that athletes last as long as they do. If I had to spend every day getting punched in the face or body-checked into the boards or feeling my ribs crunch under a linebacker’s shoulder pads, I’m not sure that I could get out of bed at all. And I’ve been pretty active most of my life.
What must aging be like for those who were never in shape? Or those whose lifelong medical conditions have prohibited them from even trying to exercise? In this day of medical miracles, why can’t we all live long lives free of pain and discomfort and, yes, the gray hair-pimple combination?
Still, I’ll take aging over the alternative every day. I’d rather be gray-haired and above-ground than a young-looking corpse.
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Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
“Whose Hands Are These?”
A few months back, Kalene and I were watching an episode of Strange Addictions. The subject of that week’s program was a young woman addicted to tanning. She went to several different tanning beds every day, divvying up her visits to avoid the safety limitations that each individual salon imposed. Then she would go home and lay out by the pool, her only sunblock a bottle of baby oil. This woman didn’t have a tan; she fairly glowed orange, rating about an eight on the John Boehner-Hulk Hogan scale. You could have used her for a nightlight.
At one point in the show, she visited a dermatologist, who, of course, told her that she had been playing Russian Roulette with her life, given the increasing prevalence of skin cancer. He also took one of her hands and pointed out all the wrinkles, the spots, the dryness. The woman called them “old people hands,” though of course the presence of that condition did not deter her. When she found that she had no major skin issues at that point in her life, she took it for a sign that she was making sound decisions and that she could rub the results in her concerned friends’ and family’s noses.
The fact that she would probably look like a piece of beef jerky by the time she was thirty-five apparently did nothing to persuade her, and neither did the fact that, you know, she might develop major health problems in the future. I suppose that most smokers in their late teens to early twenties probably don’t have emphysema yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re making healthy decisions.
You just can’t tell some people anything.
For me, though, that image of her hands stuck out the most. They were as deep brown/orange as the rest of her; fittingly enough, her nails looked like five alabaster tombstones sticking out of rich newly-dug earth. Deep wrinkles covered her finger joints. You could see the beginnings the splotches people call liver spots or age spots. And she herself used that phrase “old people hands.” Of course, I looked down at my own hands at that moment, and I found that, while my skin tone remains at the polar opposite of orange, the rest of the symptoms presented just fine. The wrinkles at the joints. The increasingly-large freckles. The out-and-out splotches that I had heretofore only noticed on retirees.
I had old people hands.
None of this has to do with my own current tanning habits, which rate somewhere just above Dracula’s. I don’t burst into flame on contact with sunlight, but it’s pretty close. My pale skin reddens after less than half an hour of sunlight, even after I use SPF 85. It turns boiled-lobster red if I stay out longer than that. I have been known to stay out for a few hours with insufficient sunblock and spend the next days in agony, my blistered skin feeling as if a million needles were being jabbed into it ceaselessly, my shoulders and upper back covered in water blisters. Most of that happened when I was a kid, before anyone knew the potential effects of sunburns, and only three or four times at that.
But even now, against Kalene’s advice and the recommendation of dermatologists everywhere, I don’t moisturize every day, and I don’t wear sunblock on my way to work or the grocery store. I haven’t refused to do so out of some entitled sense of my own immortality or sheer stubbornness. I just don’t remember. And as a result, my currently forty-year-old hands look forty years old.
But it’s not just my hands. My face has changed, too. I now know the definition of “crow’s feet,” a fact that dismays me more than I can explain. I have a deep wrinkle across the bridge of my nose right between my eyes and another one a half-inch or so down, evidence of how much time I apparently spend scowling and angry. Even when I open my eyes as wide as I can and shove the skin back with my fingers, I can still see the depths of those wrinkles. I’m afraid that by the time I’m eighty I’ll look like a bulldog—a very pale, almost translucent bulldog.
See, here’s the thing: I couldn’t tan even if I wanted to. I learned that the hard way when I was younger. I never really cared what anybody else thought of me, but for some reason, I wanted a tan, probably so that I could wear shorts in the summer without having to fight every self-styled wit with a pocketful of “fish-belly” jokes. So I would lay out in the back yard, at the public pool, down at the river when my friends and I drove out for a day of swimming. I fondly remember the look on my father’s face when he came home for lunch one summer day, looked out his back patio door, and saw nothing but a ladder and a few pairs of dangling legs. My friends and I had decided to sunbathe on the roof. And once, I ruined a perfectly good fishing trip with my father as I struggled to maneuver around in the boat so that I could “tan” equally on both sides.
Oh, I used sunblock—SPF 2.75 or something like that. But as early as my mid-teens, I learned that the pain of even a mild sunburn did not seem worth the pathetic results I achieved. I never tanned; I just got a bit less white. If the Twilight films had existed back then, they could have plucked me off the street and sent me out as Vampire Henchman #4 without any makeup.
These days, I don’t even care. When I go to the beach or the pool, I spray or slather on the sunblock until I am encased in a solid layer on which bugs lose their lives. Throw a Frisbee at me and it just might stick fast. I have read too much and experienced too much of the scary effects of tanning, only one of which is the premature aging of your skin.
Nevertheless, whenever I look in the mirror, I can still see aging’s effects in every wrinkle, every freckle that has morphed into something the size of a penny, every liver spot that has had the temerity to show up so far before its time. And though I am perfectly comfortable with aging gracefully—no plans for any plastic surgery for me—I just don’t understand why someone so young would take so many chances with their appearance, their health, their very life now that we know everything we know.
I mean, if I could say one thing to that woman on Strange Addictions, I guess it would be this: if my hands look their age, you’ve got to remember that I grew up in the seventies and eighties, when nobody really knew about the dangers of second-hand smoke, or ultraviolet radiation, or letting your kids climb all over the inside of a moving vehicle, or eating deep-fried everything.
What’s your excuse?
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
On Feline Philosophy
Sometimes I wonder what it’s really like to be a cat. Then I remember that, as I get older, I probably already know. They spend most of their day sleeping and far too much of the night roaming about, breaking into cabinets with the efficiency of a safe-cracker and pouncing on unsuspecting dreamers and eating too much. I can relate.
Not long ago, I woke up late. I mean really late, nearly one o’clock in the afternoon. True, I had had a rough night; I was up till nearly five. I had worked and played until two am, and then I tossed and turned for another two and a half hours or so, trying desperately to get comfortable on my aching muscles and sometimes-creaky bones, to breathe through my nose that constantly clogs every time I lie down, to stop thinking about the things I didn’t get done and all the things I’d need to do the next day.
I knew that I would wake up late, and that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I would remain groggy all day, out of sorts, my already screwed-up biological clock thrown even farther out of true. And sure enough, it all happened just like I imagined. Up at 1 pm, eating lunch at 5, eating supper at 11, back to bed at a time when most people have already sunk deeply into their REM sleep, dreaming weird dreams and drooling onto their pillows.
I have, over the past couple of years, trained myself to take one or two short naps during the day, partly because I need to make up for the sleep I didn’t get at night and partly because I just can’t go without sleep like I used to. I started experiencing sleep problems when I was a teenager. I would go to bed around 10 pm, but for whatever reason—a surplus of young-person energy? Budding anxiety disorder? Lewd sexual fantasies?—my mind would race as soon as I turned off the lights. Soon enough, I learned that I could solve this problem to a certain extent if I left my radio on all night; then I would concentrate on the music, the lyrics, the mix of genres and styles, and eventually I would drift off, still not right away but earlier than I would have otherwise.
Of course, then my dreams would often take on an even more surreal quality. Once I dreamed that I was walking through my neighborhood, which had somehow been turned into an Asian market. People thronged everywhere, their eyes on the road or the market wares, their shoulders bumping against me as I made my way through them, looking for someone whose name I could not remember. And through it all, David Bowie’s “China Girl” blasted from unseen speakers. The sacred cow he mentions kept wandering through people’s yards and taking enormous shits on driveways. I woke up in the middle of the dream and heard the same song on the radio.
So my sleep schedule has always been weird. And that weirdness has become more and more of a problem as I’ve gotten older. Once, I could stay up for days and still perform at high levels. Now I can go for about four hours before I at least wish I could take a short nap.
I first discovered that age plays havoc with your ability to cope with sleep deprivation not long after my daughter Maya was born. I was still married to her mother then. My then-wife was breastfeeding Maya, which had never presented a problem; but we never considered what might happen if that food supply was suddenly eliminated.
My ex had decided to have her tubes tied after her second pregnancy, which was fine with me. We weren’t getting along at all by then, and I already had three children, so I was pretty tired. The procedure was supposed to take place in the morning, and, we were told, she would get to come home that afternoon. So before we took her to the hospital, she didn’t stockpile any milk for Maya. I saw the unused breast pump lying on a shelf in our closet and shivered, as if I had glimpsed through a crack in the universe a very specific kind of hell. Then I forgot about it and took her to the O.R.
During the allegedly routine procedure, the surgeon found a cyst on one of her ovaries, and it alarmed him enough that he went ahead and removed it. When a physician risks a lawsuit by performing a procedure without familial authorization, you know he must have been concerned. This extra procedure obviously increased the surgery time, but it also necessitated a longer hospital stay, as did the doctors’ feelings that further tests would be necessary. To avoid infection, they gave her more, and different, antibiotics, plus more pain meds than they had originally planned, all of which would have been secreted through her breast milk.
And so a few hours’ stay turned into a multiple-day ordeal. The hospital kept her for further tests and observations. Meanwhile, I was stuck at home with a hungry baby and no breast milk. I had no choice but to give Maya formula, but she hated it. When some of that stuff dribbled into her mouth, you’d have thought that I had given her a lemon rind and alum sandwich. She screwed up her face and screamed at me, as if to say, “You asshole! Are you trying to kill me?” She also responded badly to the artificial nipples and the different feeding position she had to assume. She would barely eat, and because she was so hungry, she cried. Loudly. Interminably. I cannot imagine that victims of the Spanish Inquisition cried louder than she did. I think they heard her on the space shuttle.
I tried everything. I even tried leaning down next to her ear and making a heartbeat sound, which fooled her for about two minutes. But she simply would not take the formula from a bottle. I tried giving it to her with an eye-dropper; she spit it back out. I tried powdered formula and canned formula and every other kind I could find; she would have none of it. And because she was crying constantly, she barely slept, which meant that I didn’t sleep either.
Eventually I reached my wits’ end. I asked Kalene—my third and final wife who was, at the time, a very good friend of ours—to come over and watch Maya so I could get a couple of hours’ sleep; she obliged, but that two hours did me little good. The world began to take on that too-bright quality, where the light looks weird and voices sound muffled and life takes on the characteristics of a Dali painting. You start saying things in a deep, slow voice just to see how weird you sound: “HEEEEEEEEElllllllOOOOOOOoooo, nurse!” Yet when I went back to the hospital, they wanted to keep my ex even longer.
“Doc,” I said, “please understand that I want you to do everything you need to do. Make sure she’s safe and healthy. But if what you’re planning is in any way extraneous, let me tell you this. I’ve been up for days. I’m on the verge of having a psychotic episode. My daughter needs breast milk, and she can’t get any if you keep pumping drugs into my wife. What I’m saying is that if these tests aren’t really necessary, then I urge you, for the sake of three people, don’t run them.”
They ran the tests but did not give her any extra drugs, noting that they were being as cautious as possible but that she would almost certainly be fine without the extra antibiotics. We went home, and she was fine, and my daughter ate, and I slept for about six months.
I can no longer stay up for days at a time, for necessity or fun. I can still go a day or two on little sleep if I have to, but it isn’t easy or pleasant anymore. Yet my sleep schedule remains as screwed up as it has ever been, and short of getting one of those machines that re-align your Circadian rhythms, which my doctor has actually recommended, I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t just go to bed earlier; I toss and turn, unable to get comfortable or stop thinking about things. I can go to bed at 9 pm and still won’t fall asleep until at least 2 am, regardless of circumstances. So I might as well just stay up.
Having lived with cats for the past ten years, I’ve noticed how much I have in common with them. The way they live their lives mirrors, in many ways, how I live mine.
What are cats interested in? What do they do? Well, they eat, and sleep, and excrete bodily wastes. They occasionally snuggle up to you in search of affection, and when they’ve had enough, they leave, regardless of your feelings. If you leave human food where they can reach it, they will often sneak snacks that they shouldn’t have, so you have to remain vigilant around them. And when they feel like it, they want to play, no matter what you’d rather be doing. Some, like our cat Cookie, will even punish you if you don’t comply.
I think about more than these things, of course. I don’t reduce my existence to basic functions like eating, drinking, and pooping, and if you don’t agree to have fun with me exactly when I want, I probably won’t attack the printer or paw at the flat-screen TV or knock something off a shelf. But in many ways, I have, as I’ve aged, come to resemble our cats, in philosophy if not appearance.
For instance, I tend to nap at odd hours. I can usually sleep anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours pretty much whenever the sun is out. I can lie down on the couch, my head resting on Kalene’s lap, and fall asleep fairly quickly. I can stretch out on our bed and crash as long as sunlight peeks in through the blinds. I can’t curl up in an office chair like a cat, nor can I use my own arms and legs for pillows. But naps have become an important part of my daily existence. They leave me feeling refreshed most of the time and give me the energy I need to make it through the rest of the day.
I know what you’re thinking. “If you’d just stop taking naps, you could get to sleep at night earlier.” But that doesn’t work. Naps are a comparatively recent part of my routine, but I’ve always had trouble sleeping at night, even when I’m exhausted.
Another way my older self mirrors our cats is that I eat too much and don’t work it off as easily as I used to. When I was younger, I had the willpower to avoid unnecessary snacking. I would eat something until I no longer felt hungry, and then I would stop. Yet, ironically, my metabolism fired so quickly that I didn’t really need any willpower. I could shovel in heaps of whatever I wanted to eat and remain thin and wiry.
Now, my willpower has faded. If somebody hands me a cheesecake, I want to eat as much as I possibly can. If I force myself to stop at one piece, I soon find myself standing at the open refrigerator, looking longingly at the fruit and yogurt and ice cream and snack veggies piled in there. Sure, most of that stuff is healthy, but all of it contains calories. Moreover, I have become increasingly attracted to the kinds of snacks I have always been able to take or leave—Little Debbie snack cakes with enough fat and caloric content to serve as half my day’s allowance, sodium-heavy trifles like potato chips, peanut butter sandwiches as snacks instead of lunches. And as my willpower has faded, my weight has steadily climbed north. When I was in high school, I weighed perhaps 130 pounds. When I was thirty, it was more like 160. Now, at forty, I am nearly 200 pounds. Sure, I eat a little more than I used to and have a harder time turning down sweets, but the main reason for the weight gain is that my metabolism has simply slowed down. I noticed in my early 30s that my stomach was starting to protrude more than it used to; now I sometimes think I look like I’m six months pregnant. True, I don’t have a lot of body fat; I can pinch perhaps an inch on my waist. But my body has changed in ways that I don’t like and that I can seemingly do nothing about.
Our cats have gone through a similar change. When Judas—our beloved companion of nearly two decades, who died a year and a half ago—was still alive, she pigged out quite often. As a result, her belly hung down until it dangled perhaps an inch and a half off the floor, and when she ran, it flopped from side to side, striking her in the middle of her ribs like a scourge. Similarly, Cookie has gained weight since she realized that she’s a cat, not a dog or a human. In her former household, she lived with a lively little dog and an energetic little girl. She was always on the go. Here, our youngest visitor is Maya, who’s going on twelve years old now, and we have no other pets. We play with Cookie as much as possible and run her half to death with her favorite feather toy, Da Bird ™, but she now chills out more than she used to. She takes more naps, stops at her food bowl more often, and generally acts like a cat with nothing particularly important on her mind. And as a result, she’s a fraction heavier than she used to be. I get the feeling that when her own metabolism slows down in her old age, she’ll be quite the little butterball. Sometimes I feel the same way—not that being a bit overweight is so bad, but that a change that I didn’t authorize has occurred and that I’m helpless to change it.
What other ways has my daily life come to resemble my cats’? Well, I’m grumpier than I used to be. I’ve never been one of those people who constantly need to be surrounded by others. But I find that, more and more, I’d just as soon stay home as go to that party, that football game, that concert. Someone asked me not too long ago why I don’t take advantage of my university connections (whatever they might be) and attend more college football games. I said, “Why would I want to go out in the weather and battle close to a hundred thousand drunks for the pleasure of seeing the part of game that happens close to my seats, when I could just stay home and eat my own food, use my own bathroom, and see the whole thing on TV?” And often, when I go out to eat or to a movie, I have to sit on my hands to keep from punching somebody in the face. When did people get so damn annoying?
Cats tend to hang out with people only when they want to, regardless of what the people themselves want. Cats rub on your legs or jump in your lap and demand affection, and when they’ve gotten what they wanted, they tend to wander off by themselves. We used to find Judas sleeping behind curtains, in the closets, in our office chairs. Cookie likes the office chairs too, but also digs the tops of the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets or sunny windowsills.
Cookie will stop doing pretty much anything if she suddenly realizes that she needs a bath. I’ve seen her dash madly after a toy, freeze in her tracks, and stick one hind leg straight up in the air so that she can clean her asshole. Apparently some itches just have to be scratched. As for me, I’ve gotten less tolerant of being sweaty. I’ve got to shower every day, even if I don’t go anywhere or do anything in particular. On the other hand, Judas’s hair got duller as she got older and lost interest in grooming herself. Mine now feels oily and greasy if I don’t wash it every twelve hours or so.
When you have more in common with your cats than you do with most people, you might be in trouble. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more insular, impatient, and easily annoyed. I’ve seen my hair start to turn gray and my belly swell out like I was malnourished. I get sore every time I work out or play some sport for more than five minutes. I rail at life’s little injustices—what kind of world is it when you can have both gray hair and pimples? Shouldn’t having the one preclude the other??—with less motivation and more passion. I spend a lot of time by myself or with only Kalene and my kids; I’d just as soon wait for a movie to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray instead of listen to somebody’s brat caterwaul over the opening credits or watch that idiot two rows down answer the cell phone he was supposed to have turned off twenty minutes ago. Where once I lost myself in the Dionysian pleasures of rock concerts, I now spend half the time wishing that guy would stop stepping on my foot or that that stupid woman would get off her boyfriend’s shoulders so the rest of us could frickin’ see.
In short, I would, nine times out of ten, find more pleasure in curling up in the warm sunlight for an afternoon nap than in losing myself in a human biomass accompanied by loud music or pretty pictures on a screen.
At least I don’t take my dumps in a box or lick myself, right? But then, I’m only forty. I wonder what eighty will bring.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a short story I wrote some years back. It’s unpublished, previously unseen anywhere, so call it a blog exclusive. A bit humorous, a bit satirical, lots of fun to write…comments welcome, except from trolls.
Nude Sucking Ink
He was painting a nude woman performing fellatio on a blue Pilot Bettergrip pen when his agent Curly called. Curly, a mousy man with an anemic pencil mustache, said
Hi, Hamlet. Good news. The gallery agreed. You have a show.
Hamlet dropped his brush and sat in the nearest chair. The model relaxed, throwing on a button-down white shirt and twirling the pen between her fingers. He looked at the painting, admiring his own work, his bold new style. On this canvas, what might be interpreted as a thin penis was capped, possibly, by a pair of full lips. This image lay at the center of the painting. Dozens of tightly woven lines—spirals, straights, diagonals—emanated from the central figure to the canvas borders. Hamlet said
Don’t jerk me around today, Curly. I’m trying to finish Nude Sucking Ink, and I’m almost there
and Curly said
I’m not kidding. The Kane House in downtownLittle Rock. They’ve agreed to give you the whole second floor
and Hamlet frowned, saying
Little Rock. I live in Parkview and drive a Volkswagen Beetle. How am I supposed to get all my paintings toLittle Rock?
Curly snorted and said
I’ll send a van. Jesus, man, is that all you have to say? I tell you you’ve got a show in the Kane House, best gallery in the state, and all you do is bitch because I didn’t bring the buyers and critics to your place
and Hamlet, only half listening, looked at the model and said
Take off that shirt.
She stuck the pen in her mouth and slipped out of the shirt. Hamlet felt his erection rising, just as he liked it when he was painting. He said to Curly
Look, it’s fantastic news. I’ve just had a cruddy day and I want to finish this. When’s the show?
and Curly said
Next week. Call me when you finish that one and then don’t start on any more till after the big day. You need to save all your energy for schmoozing.
Hamlet hung up. He picked up his brush and turned to the model. Her breasts hung down, pendulous, heavy. He took a deep breath and went back to work.
* * *
One week later, Hamlet stood in the Kane House, surrounded by his paintings and several people he had already come to loathe. Each of the paintings exhibited his new style—a fuzzy image surrounded by tight lines. He called the technique Abstract Soft Focus. The work seemed to interest the browsers, though each of them seemed to have been bred especially to bug Hamlet and assault his sensibilities.
Curly stood next to Hamlet in front of Nude Sucking Ink. Bob Kane, the gallery owner, stood next to them holding a half-empty glass of red wine. Kane clapped Hamlet on the back and said
We’ve sold five already, Ham
to which Hamlet replied
I hate being called Ham.
Curly grunted and shuffled in between them, saying
Sorry, Bob, like most artists he has the social skills of a tree sloth. We’ve sold five so far, Hamlet. Lots of money here tonight
and Hamlet said
It isn’t the money
and Curly said
Of course it isn’t. By the way. If you only wanted to paint lips, why did you request a nude model?
and Hamlet said
Because I like looking at naked women.
Kane laughed, cleared his throat, and moved on, mixing with his guests and grabbing another glass of wine from a passing waiter. Curly shook his head, frowning. A young man with blonde hair and a horrible bright pink ascot strolled up. He sipped a martini and considered Nude Sucking Ink, stroking his goatee every few seconds. Finally he said
What lovely energy. A wonderful commentary on the proliferation of sex in the media
and Hamlet said
Actually, the sexual image is meant to represent all primal urges that both feed and are in turn fed by language, hence the pen
and the young man laughed and said
An interesting interpretation
to which Hamlet replied
The true interpretation. I’m the artist.
But the young man only laughed again, as if such an idea had never occurred to him and in fact now seemed absurd since someone had mentioned it. He said
It matters little. Your interpretation is still only one of many. You aren’t God, and even His creations have more than one possible meaning. But since we’re talking about your work and what you think it means, let me ask you this: why the speed lines?
and Hamlet said
They aren’t speed lines. Their elusiveness represents my denial of all form. It shows my individual vision
but the young man said
Ah, but denial of form is also a form. While you use this method, many others have also denied form, meaning that no form is still form, a school in fact. The only true way to deny form is not to paint, and millions of people do that. It’s so cliché
to which Hamlet replied
You’re an asshole
and the young man walked away. Curly cringed and said
Very nice, Hamlet. You’re alienating the buyers
but Hamlet said
I don’t give a damn if they buy. I’m here to make a statement
and Curly said
Me too. A bank statement. A financial statement. But I don’t get any percentage if you don’t sell. So, as a personal favor to me, try to keep your righteous indignation under control long enough to make some fucking money
and he walked away, mumbling. Hamlet shrugged. He decided to stand in a corner, away from the idiots on the floor. Some sort of crappy music was playing over the PA, possibly Michael Bolton. He hated Michael Bolton.
Curly was running back and forth between guests, alternately fawning over them and the paintings. He would run to someone, throw an arm around him or her, gesture at one painting or another, run to another guest. At a distance it looked like a mating ritual. Hamlet wondered what a zoologist would make of Curly’s particular species. He was saying
Now over here is a really interesting piece
sounding, to Hamlet, like used car salesman. Come on down to Crazy Ham’s. Everything must go. A tall man with a comically large cowboy hat strolled over to Hamlet and leaned against the wall. Hamlet said
Say, aren’t you Toby Keith?
The man laughed and said
No, he’s got more hair and better looks. Me, I own some hotels downtown
and Hamlet thought
I hope you’re an art lover, mister
but the man said
No, but I get a lot of the artsy crowd. They bitch about the paintins in the rooms, so I cruise these shows looking for somethin good but cheap.
Hamlet puffed out his chest and sneered, saying
I assure you that this artist would never, in any number of lifetimes, allow any of his pieces to hang in a hotel room
saying the words as if they were a curse that hurt his mouth, and the man said
Yeah I heard he was one of those really snooty types. But it ain’t like I’m ask his permission, you know?
and Hamlet said
He called Curly over, took him by the elbow, and pointed to the cowboy, saying too loudly
Have security throw that shitkicker in the Stetson out on his redneck ass
and Curly walked away, muttering.
Hamlet pulled up a metal folding chair. He sat down in front of Nude Sucking Ink and rubbed his temples. A monstrous headache was forming behind his left eye. The show was not going well at all. The pieces were selling, but no one was getting him. No one appreciated his artistry.
A fat woman with enormous breasts oozed over and asked him how much time it took to paint a picture. He said
so she said
and he spat
Models, funds, inspiration, the availability of liquor, take your pick.
She considered this a moment before asking
Do you sleep with your models?
to which Hamlet replied
You are one tasteless woman.
She laughed and said
That’s a terrible thing to say to someone interested in your art. Tell me, hotshot, why is your style so—what’s the word I’m looking for—goofy?
Grinding his teeth, Hamlet turned to her and said
Lady, my style is bold, rebellious, but never, ever goofy.
The woman let Hamlet stew for a few seconds, just long enough for him to think she was going to leave him alone, and then she said
I don’t understand rebellion. How do you consider yourself rebellious?
and Hamlet groaned and said
Look, both my parents are English professors who named me Hamlet, for Christ’s sake. The very existence of visual art from my hand is rebellion.
The woman thought about this for a moment before saying
Still looks goofy to me
and walking away. Hamlet stared at her, open-mouthed, and then yelled
I hope your fucking thighs get a rash!
as Curly made shushing gestures from across the room.
Goofy, rebellious, traditional, energetic, chaotic—Hamlet had heard them all, had said a few of them himself, expected to hear more. And as bad as the evening had been, he was grateful that he had, at least, not heard the one adjective that he would not abide—derivative. He could not bear that word, not even when applied to someone else. It was the ultimate curse for artists. It tasted dirty, sounded obscene. He dwelled so much on the term that he had almost forgotten the fat woman when he heard the young man in the ascot say
So I said to him, Steven, you made a zillion dollars with the first movie. And you don’t have any of your original cast for the sequel. So won’t a sequel utilizing the same concept seem, well, derivative?
Hamlet stood, slowly. A shudder ran through his body. He took the chair by its legs, its metal cold in his hands, raised it above his head, and then brought it down seat first on the young man’s skull. The young man fell into the fat woman, grabbing at her as he collapsed, ripping a strap from her dress and exposing one massive breast. She staggered backward and bumped into the cowboy, who spilled his drink all over a painting. The show collapsed all around him, but Hamlet did not notice. He was looking serenely at the lines of Nude Sucking Ink, thinking of wind-made ripples on the still surface of a pond.
Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
“They Grow up so Fast”
Sometimes, nothing makes you feel older than your own kids.
One day, you’re watching them come into the world. The next, they’re studying for their driver’s exam or asking your advice on mutual funds.
When my oldest daughter Shauna was born, I was eighteen years old. That same year, the Berlin wall came down, but not before George Herbert Walker Bush’s inauguration as the United States’ 41st president. Stamps cost twenty-five cents. The San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl; the Oakland A’s won the World Series. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. Rain Man won the Best Picture Oscar; luminaries such as Lucille Ball, Robert Penn Warren, Salvador Dali, and Laurence Olivier died. And sitting at the top of the music charts? Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and George Michael’s Faith.
In the time since, we’ve already experienced a second Bush’s (so-called) presidency. Stamps have more than doubled in price; don’t even get me started on gasoline. To my children and most of my current students, a divided Germany seems like ancient history, right up there with the Crusades and the invention of the wheel. The San Francisco 49ers can’t even win a division that, in 2010, sent its champion into the playoffs with a losing record. The A’s? Aren’t they that team that keeps dumping its talent for cheaper versions of same? Or am I thinking of the Florida Marlins, who didn’t even exist in ’89? And who the hell are Laurence Olivier and Robert Penn Warren? Meanwhile, both “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and George Michael have become cultural jokes, even though Faith is a damn good album.
Oddly enough, my son was born in 1995, a year in which San Francisco won another Super Bowl, this time over the San Diego Chargers, whose coach cost me twelve hundred dollars in our local pool by going for two at the end of the third quarter. But that seems like the only holdover from 1989. The times, they were a-changin’, as Bob Dylan said (I can hear next year’s freshmen saying “Who?” already).
Brendan came into a world that seemed less certain and more violent than the one we had lived in just six or seven years earlier. Conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Croatia fractured the globe—except in those regions where nobody cared what was happening to a bunch of foreigners. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Right-wing military groups gained national infamy when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Forrest Gump won the Best Picture Oscar; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened. Mickey Mantle and Jerry Garcia died. So did Howard Cosell, leaving Muhammad Ali without a verbal sparring partner.
What about 1999, when my youngest daughter Maya was born? Well, the world didn’t end, meaning that we could no longer trust Prince as the major prophet in our lives. Nelson Mandela took over as President of South Africa, righting an enormous historical injustice; on the other hand, Yugoslavia imploded. Since Prince was wrong, computer scientists scared us all silly, prophesying that the dreaded Y2K bug would send us all hurtling back to the Stone Age. The Senate tried to impeach Bill Clinton for getting a blowjob in the White House, leaving the rest of us to wonder if they were jealous or just plain bored. John F. Kennedy Jr. died; racist asshole John William King was convicted of dragging a black man to death; and two disgruntled Columbine High School students massacred fellow pupils and teachers, prompting us all to revisit our notions of school security and the roles guns play in our lives.
Well, all of us except the NRA, which kept insisting that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Maybe so, but guns sure do help. One wonders how soon Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris might have been stopped if they had been armed with automatic switchblades, or a two-by-four with a nail in it.
Gene Siskel and Stanley Kubrick died. Jerry Falwell’s homophobia extended to a Teletubby. The Blair Witch Project scared some of us half to death and bored others to tears. Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar that, with all due respect to a fine film, should have gone to Saving Private Ryan. George C. Scott died, meaning that Hollywood had lost one of its most gutsy, individual performers.
So what does all this mean? Well, in some ways, nothing ever changes. Some guy (and it’s always a guy, and usually a white one?) moves into the White House; a bunch of people celebrate, while others throw tantrums. Great art is produced even as great artists die. Someone somewhere blows something up or shoots somebody; sports teams rise and fall and rise again.
If you live long enough, you start to notice these similarities, patterns, and cycles. And once you start noticing them, a disheartening realization crashes in on you. “Jeez,” you might say, “I’ve been around a long time.”
With some exceptions—Byronic teenagers, people with specific untreated mental or emotional conditions, a certain brand of religious lunatic, Wile E. Coyote (who by now has to realize that the boulder’s always going to fall on his head, not the Road Runner’s)—most of us want to be around a long time. But none of us want to face old age, do we? That first liver spot on the hands, the crow’s feet around the eyes, the gray hair, the aching back, the prescription reading glasses that sit on the end of your nose—these things send us running in blind panic to our mirrors, our cosmetic counters, our plastic surgeons. Our bodies function as Age’s roadmap even as it drives its steamroller directly over us, and when we consider all the events great and small that we’ve lived through, it only underscores how long we’ve been here. In turn, these realizations make us wonder how long we’ve got left.
Our kids remind us of whom we used to be and what we used to look like—young, flawless (except for that zit that always seems to erupt on your nose on school picture day), energetic, idealistic, and vital. When Shauna was born, she looked purple; when I asked why, the nurse said, “Because the temperature in here is somewhere in the seventies. She’s used to 98.6.” That made sense. Then the nurse put her on the scale and said, “Nine pounds, thirteen ounces? Is that right?”
“How the hell should I know?” I said. “You’re supposed to know how to work all this junk.”
If you’ll allow me to use a cliché here, I can tell you with all sincerity that Shauna’s birth doesn’t seem to have happened twenty-two years ago; I remember it like it happened yesterday. But the evidence stands in front of me every time I see her. She’s grown, with a life of her own—an apartment, a job, an educational outlook, a political sensibility, a boyfriend, this last even though I told her a thousand times that she’s not allowed to date until I’m dead. Kids today just don’t listen.
The scary thing is that she’s old enough to have a family of her own, and though she wisely doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry to do so, I know she could change her mind. A note to everyone reading this: I am too young to be a grandfather. Don’t even try to argue with me, or I’ll come to your house and staple your lips shut. Too young, do you hear? Too young!!
My son’s now almost old enough to drive by himself. I distinctly remember what that was like—the freedom, the sense of adulthood, the deep red rage when I realized that my new milestone had doomed me to “run to the store” a million times. He’s also a football player, just like his old man. Well, not just like me—he’s much bigger than I was. When I played, I was a 120-pound wideout with okay hands and speed. I also had the vertical leap of a professional—professional sumo wrestler, but still. Seriously, I could clear six inches easily. But ask me to snag a pass much higher than that, and we were both going to come away sorely disappointed. And I would probably stagger off the field gasping from that linebacker who planted his helmet in my floating ribs.
Brendan, on the other hand, weighs about as much as I do now—north of 190, south of 200—and he’s pretty fast, too. He’s currently playing defensive end. If he keeps growing without losing any speed or dexterity, he’s going to be a handful, even for the meatiest offensive linemen.
So when I look at him, I often see a stronger version of my younger self. More dedicated to sports, too—I loved the games but hated practice. Hated it. When I was his age, I went to practice with only slightly more enthusiasm than a death-row inmate walks toward the electric chair. If somebody had told me that I could play in the games without practicing if I agreed to get publicly flogged and caned, I’d have had to think about it seriously. That’s why he’s almost guaranteed to be more successful than I was. He loves the whole experience. He’s the kind of player I wish I could have been. I’ve done well for myself academically—Ph.D., people!—and that started in grade school. But when I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to shape up in practice, I think of Brendan and know that he’s doing better without all the hindsight I’ve stockpiled.
Still, knowing that my son’s playing varsity this year—not Pee Wee or Pop Warner, not eighth grade, not junior high, but varsity—I look in the mirror and wonder how it got to be so late.
Sometimes my kids are quick to remind me about the chronology of my life. When Shauna was graduating high school, I and several other members of my family—Kalene, Brendan, Maya, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt Sandra, my cousin Holly—went to the ceremony. At the hotel, Brendan’s face lit up, as if he had just figured out how to bend the space-time continuum. Then he said, “Hey, Dad. If Shauna’s eighteen, and you’re thirty-six, that means you had her when you were—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said. “Now you decide to use math in the real world? Let’s drop it.”
Yes, Shauna got her diploma four and a half years ago and is, as of this writing, contemplating a return to college. Brendan enters tenth grade this year. And Maya will be twelve in November. She’s almost a teenager. I have no more babies.
It’s odd how being around my kids can make me feel so young and so old at the same time. I feed on their energy even as it exhausts me. I revel in their lives even as I shrink in horror at how those lives are moving so quickly away from me. With Shauna’s job and the physical distance between us, we can only see each other a couple of times a year. Brendan is at the stage where his friends and social life seem more important that hanging with Dad; I’ve been there, so I understand, but it’s still tough. I’m glad he still comes for holidays. As for Maya, she spends the summers with us, and that’s always fun, but I’m sure the time is coming when her own friends, and interests, and those fearful romantic stirrings take precedence.
And when the nest is empty, when the kids have all finished their educations and gone off to live their own adventures, even a non-custodial parent like me will probably feel ancient. It’s a moment that will fill me with pride and regret. And when that moment passes, I will probably sit down next to Kalene in the matching rocking chairs we’ve recently bought. I’ll probably take a nap during the ball game. I doubt I will ever catch her knitting or doing those other typical grandmother things, but I’m sure she’ll be reading a good book as our life enters its early afternoon.
And when I wake up and stretch my increasingly creaky bones, I’ll probably look around me and say, with a mixture of pain and satisfaction, “Where did the time go?”
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at email@example.com.
Thanks to www.infoplease.com for reminding me of what happened when, especially from the following pages: http://www.infoplease.com/year/1989.html; http://www.infoplease.com/year/1995.html; http://www.infoplease.com/year/1999.html.