I once had a job where the employees were required to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  This was a retail position at a mid-size corporation that sold books, music, and movies.  I spent eight hours a day alphabetizing used CDs and ringing up customers at the cash register while wearing a green smock with a button attached to it that said, “Hello, my name is Dale!  I’m happy to help!”  I was not happy to help.  In fact, I had never been so unhappy to help in my life.

Working at a corporation is a humiliating experience for the low-level employees.  Its’ not enough for those suit monkeys to monopolize your time and energy; they want your soul, as well.  This particular job paid $7.00 an hour with no benefits, which was a mere 50 cents above minimum wage, and for that extra half dollar the company expected you not only to show up on time with a smile for the customer but to also express gratitude for the opportunity to scrub their toilets and receive abuse from their patrons.  The official company motto was, Let Us Entertain You, but unofficially it was, Thank You, Sir.  May I Have Another?

At some point, a group of pencil-pushers at corporate headquarters organized a focus group and decided they needed to boost employee morale.  I can say without reservation that a livable wage and a dental plan would have improved my outlook considerably, but instead the company decided to mandate certain celebratory activities.  On birthdays, cheap cakes were purchased and songs were sung.  Cards were handed out during major, non-religious holidays, and Valentine’s Day became a compulsory activity.

Few things are more degrading for the average human being than forced happiness.  Telling someone they will be fired if they don’t have fun is a bit like requiring a POW to write out a thank-you card after his tormentors have broken all his fingers.  America has always been known as the Land of Eternal Optimism, where brilliant minds like Walt Disney and Henry Ford are allowed the freedom to realize their dreams. However, once those dreams have come to fruition and those genius brains have been rotting in wormy graves for a few decades, another American tradition takes over: greed and exploitation. In our current system, it’s not the innovators who are rewarded but those who take a wonderful, new idea and transform it into a cheap cliche that can be crammed down the public’s throat with such relentless determination that the original dream becomes nothing more than a shallow mockery of itself.

Hence, Valentine’s Day.

But I digress…

During the first week in February, the employee break room at my workplace was suddenly cluttered with brown paper bags, scissors, construction paper, glue sticks, tape, markers, crayons, and glittery paint. It looked like a kindergarten classroom for clinically depressed children. Two days later the staff received a memo stating that every employee was required to create a Valentine’s Bag with his or her name on it and give one another cards by Feb. 14. Or else! In response, I wrote my name on a bag with a black marker and placed it in the designated area. My supervisor was not amused. He called me into his office and delivered a speech similar to the one given to Jennifer Anniston’s character in the movie Office Space concerning the amount of flair she had on her Chotchkie’s uniform. I was told that my attitude was a problem and it needed adjusting. Why couldn’t I be positive about this? Was it really so bad to spread a little love and good cheer to my fellow employees? What was the issue here?

I was twenty-two years old at the time and incapable of articulating the precise reason why being mandated to spread love and cheer by an amoral, money-hungry corporation made me want to firebomb my supervisor’s BMW, so I capitulated. I decorated a new sack with various pink and red hearts, while secretly cursing my supervisor for making me do so. The bag was then filled with stupid little cards and those gross heart-shaped candies that taste like chalk. I quit two months later.

Over the years, my attitude toward Valentine’s Day has not improved. If anything, it has gotten worse, a prejudice that has often made my love life difficult. Though I have never been the type of person to date girls who listen to Celine Dion or cry during cheesy romantic comedies, most of my exes wanted to at least acknowledge February 14th and perhaps go for a nice meal at a restaurant that didn’t feature a drive-up window. Go figure. Arguments ensued and I was often accused of being unromantic and cynical, insults that are difficult to deny while you’re setting a Nicholas Sparks novel on fire. In the end, the reasons most often sited when these relationships ended were my inability to express emotions and my impulse to see the negative side of every situation. I was exhausting. And depressing. And narcissistic. And misanthropic. And I wore socks to bed.

These things are undeniably true. I am not good at relationships; I hate expressing emotions; and even though I am now in my mid-thirties, I still make gagging noises whenever I see couples feeding each other in public. (I don’t care how in love you are–if the recipient of the food is not wearing a diaper, there is absolutely no reason to feed another human being. Ever!) An ex-girlfriend who also happened to be a psychology major once diagnosed me as “a pathologically unromantic person who uses humor to hide your true feelings.” My response: “You get me!” She then added immaturity to the list.

Several years ago, I met a blind date at a bar near my apartment building. This was my favorite dating bar. If things went well and it looked like intercourse was on the horizon, I would take the date back to my place to consummate our doomed relationship. If things didn’t go well (which was usually the case), I could say goodbye to my date and get blind, fall-down drunk without having to worry about how I’d get home. It was a win-win.

This particular date was a young woman named Michelle whom I’d met via the Internet (long story). When she entered the bar, she hovered near the door for almost a full minute, her gray-blue eyes darting around like those of a frightened mouse searching a new environment for a hungry cat. I waved. The fear in her eyes did not dissipate. Nevertheless, she crossed the room, sat on the bar stool next to me, and, in a voice barely above a whisper, told me how much she hated bars. “Actually, mostly I hate people,” she said. “And bars are always filled with people. Strangers. And sometimes they try to talk to me.” She shuddered. The look on her face indicated there was nothing so horrible in her opinion as unwanted human contact.

It wasn’t difficult to see why strange men would attempt conversation. She was beautiful in a way that was almost disturbing. She had perfect alabaster skin, a long sexy nose, a swan-like neck, and dark brown hair that she was constantly attempting to hide behind. Oh, and she had pointy ears. Like an elf.

I have always been attracted to physical abnormalities, so I asked her about these ears, and without a hint of reservation she told me it was a genetic trait called human vestigiality, which is a characteristic passed down from monkeys that still appears in certain human beings. “You know, like some people have a vestigial tail,” she said. “When you think about it, we’re really just a bunch of animals. If you condense evolutionary history into a single lifetime, we just climbed down from the trees about five minutes ago.”

I was smitten.

It just so happened that on this particular night there was an open-mic poetry reading at the bar in question. I hadn’t known this when I planned the date. I hate public poetry readings. They are most often attended by the type of annoying artsy people who wear scarves indoors and insist on talking in loud voices about Allen Ginsberg so that everyone in the room can overhear their witty repartee. This event was no different. As the room filled with bongo drums and tweed jackets, I shifted uncomfortably on my bar stool. I was enjoying the date so far and did not want to risk expressing my loathing for what was about to happen next. After all, Michelle didn’t look like the type of person who delighted in reading poems about her menstrual cycle in front of Kerouac wannabes, but you never could tell. She seemed anxious, but I got the feeling this was pretty much her permanent emotional state. It was impossible to know how she felt about the whole affair. Finally, when a a young man in a goatee and beret stepped up to the microphone and announced that he’d written a haiku about Charles Bukowski’s liver, Michelle broke down. Speaking rapidly and in a voice that sounded as though it was attempting to suppress a mounting hysteria, she said, “I’m-having-a-really-good-time-and-I-don’t-want-to-offend-you-but-I-hate-when-people-read-poetry-in-bars-I-can’t-stay-here-I’m-sorry-can-we-please-leave.”

I downed my beer in three swallows.

Since the night was young and we had no specific plans, I suggested we take a walk through a nearby cemetery. Michelle thought this was a fine idea. As we strolled, I pointed out my favorite tombstones–Adolfus Livernash, Samuel Belcher, Esther Reeks–and we talked about how much we hated open-mic poetry readings.

This all happened two years ago.

It turns out Michelle is even more antisocial than I am and just as repulsed by modern romance. Currently she works at a gourmet chocolate shop, where she spends five days a week making expensive cakes and candies. Feb. 14 is their busiest day of the year, and Michelle has forbidden me to say the V-word. After spending ten hours a day crafting chocolate roses and attaching hearts to cheese cakes, she wants nothing to do with the holiday.

There are other words we don’t feel comfortable saying, as well. The L-word, for instance. I realize there are those who believe saying “I love you” several times a day is an essential part of a good relationship, but we are not these people. We tried it a few times, and it just didn’t take. It felt forced and embarrassing, like an enema. However, there are instances when even pathologically unromantic cynics feel the need to express (blah) affection. Therefore, we’ve had to improvise.

For awhile, I told Michelle that I “lurve” her, a line from a Woody Allen movie called Annie Hall, which we both admire for its unhappy ending. Eventually, “lurve” transformed into “larve” for no particular reason, “larve” became “larf,” and then “larf” made the inevitable metamorphosis into “barf.”

This is the perfect expression for us because it removes all sentiment from the term. To say “I love you” in our current culture means to act out a scene from some cheesy Meg Ryan movie. However, to say “I barf you” is to express a shared hatred for the cliches of modern romance while simultaneously sharing something personal and sacred. We’ve never actually discussed this, because that would involve expressing our feelings to one another, which would immediately make those feelings disgusting and shameful. Therefore, we simply continue to barf one another in text messages and email. We barf each other in restaurants and we barf each other at the mall. We barf each other in the morning and we barf each other at night.

On Feb. 14, we will return to that old cemetery near my apartment building where we had our first date. We will stroll amongst the tombstones thinking about all the poor saps out there buying flowers and feeding each other chocolate-covered strawberries in an effort to reenact some unattainable bit of cultural nostalgia that has long since become a trite marketing ploy. We will laugh and enjoy ourselves. We will sneer and roll our eyes. We will drink cheap wine. We will avoid poetry at all costs. We will talk about all the things we hate about Valentine’s Day. And then we will fall in barf all over again.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

December 2008

Believe it or not, there is a man in Boulder named Sam Kent who lives with an 8-foot-tall robot named Gort.  At first glance, Sam and Gort do not seem to have much in common to base a friendship on.  Sam is small.  Gort is humungous.  Sam wears round, bookish spectacles, brown corduroys and Velcro shoes.  Gort wears a helmet with a visor and is the color of a shiny new dime.  Sam is witty and gregarious and has a mischievous twinkle in his eye at all times.  Gort is more of the strong, silent type and—well, he doesn’t really have eyes, much less ones that twinkle.  However, despite their many differences, these two companions share a modest, two-story house near the downtown area.  “He’s not much for conversation,” said Sam during a recent interview.  “But he’s a great listener.  Besides, I probably do enough talking for the both of us.”  Gort had no comment.

If you are ever invited to Sam’s house, the first thing you will probably notice is that the doorbell plays an odd tune when you ring it.  Instead of the usual ding-dong, you will hear the theme song to Steven Spielberg’s famous extraterrestrial movie Close Encounters.  The second thing you’ll probably notice is Gort standing motionless no less than five feet inside the front entrance.  Gort is a life-sized replica of a character from the classic sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Sam found him at an auction in Newport Beach—where Gort was hanging out with other replicas of other famous Hollywood robots, such as Robbie from Forbidden Planet and Dave from Lost in Space—and decided a faceless, silver automaton would be the perfect addition to his foyer.  Sam admits that it might be slightly unnerving for some visitors to be greeted by an enormous creature from outer space when they cross the threshold of his house, but he can’t do anything about it.  “That’s is the only spot where the ceiling is tall enough,” Sam explained.  “He won’t fit anywhere else.”

It’s difficult to tell what the next thing is you’ll notice after entering Sam’s house.  It might be the framed, wall-length poster in the dining room commemorating a movie called The Island of Dr. Mareau, or perhaps the incredibly realistic Frankenstein head in the work room, or the rotary phone in the kitchen shaped like Mickey Mouse, or the rare scale model of Captain Nemo’s submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  But one thing is certain: you won’t have a problem finding something to notice.

Sam’s passion for movies started when he was a child growing up in Chicago.  “I had about 12,000 cousins living nearby at the time,” he said, “and when we all became too obnoxious for our parents to handle, my older brother would take us to the movie theater around the corner.  I was particularly fond of monster movies and the old, animated Disney films.  I can’t really explain why.  Perhaps it was an escapist technique, although I’m not sure what I would have been trying to escape from at the age of six.  I’ll give you my therapist’s number, and you can ask him.”

Not content to be just another voyeur in the audience, Sam was bitten by the performance bug at an early age.  When he was 9 years old, he began frequenting magic shops, and would often entertain his family by pulling quarters out of their ears and producing floral arrangements from empty hats.  “Is this your card?” became a common phrase in the Kent household.

In high school, he found a place amongst the quirky, melodramatic teenagers known as “theater nerds,” and this social outlet eventually developed into a bachelor’s degree in the performing arts from the University of Colorado.  Since that time, Sam has remained a fixture in the local arts and entertainment scene, albeit often in unorthodox ways.

“People sometimes have limited perceptions of art.  They think if you’re not dressed in tights performing Hamlet in the park, then you’re not an entertainer.  I don’t like that. I say an entertainer is anyone who entertains you.”

After graduating from college, Sam worked his way through a variety of jobs connected to the entertainment industry.  He spent time booking shows at the Boulder Theater, attempted to broaden the public’s awareness of Dracula movies at the Video Station, operated a movie-poster store in Denver, and even returned to his childhood fascination with magic for a brief period.

“For a few years, I owned a magic store in Boulder,” said Sam.  “It was really great. I had all kinds of neat things in there.”

Like what?

“Like trick knives and handcuffs and playing cards.  I also had some white rabbits and some doves that I would let loose from time to time.”

You let animals loose in the store?

“Oh, yeah.  I think a magic shop should be magical, don’t you?  I think it should be more than just a place to buy things.  It should be its own little world.  It should be an experience.”

Creating new worlds is another one of Sam’s passions.  He is a firm believer that reality is what you make of it, and Sam likes to make his reality as imaginative and whimsical as possible.  In his house, Sam has created a tiny, carefully organized universe filled with all of the things he loves: model airplanes and boats and monsters and aliens and amusement park rides and anthropomorphized cartoon animals.  Many of the items are rare or one-of-a-kind, almost everything appears to be vintage.  Sam has no idea what his entire collection is worth, and what’s more, he doesn’t care.  “I’m never going to sell any of this stuff,” he said.  “So I guess that makes it all worthless.”

Sam does not look like the type of passionate eccentric who would own such an unusual assortment of pop culture bric-a-brac.  In fact, he looks more like a landlord. In fact, he is a landlord.  Currently, he makes a living collecting money from a number of tenants, who rent space in various buildings that he owns.  However, Sam has a restless nature and seldom sticks with any job for more than five years or so.  He’s the type of man who is prone to flights of fancy, and recently he developed a new obsession that might soon lead him down yet another track: trains.

“There’s something very romantic about trains,” said Sam, holding up a caboose that he’s been working on for some time.  “Historically, they represent innovation and connection.  The United States is a big country, and railroads helped unify the nation—you know, back before we had the Internet.  I think the sight and sound of a locomotive will always be an exciting experience.”

How many times has Sam been on a train?  Twice.  But that’s not really the point.  Once again, it’s all about inventing your own little world and finding new opportunities to entertain the public.  Serious train modelers don’t just build railroads; they create an entire landscape for the train to travel through, complete with cities and cars and people.  In other words, they reconstruct our world, only smaller and hopefully with fewer lawyers.

This time, Sam wants to go public with his vision. “I would like to create a complete scale model of Boulder in the 1950s.  That’s when I first moved here as a kid.  It was a different city back then.  There weren’t so many trendy restaurants and shops; it was just a town near the mountains.  I would give tours and answer questions—I think people would really enjoy it.  The thing is, I’m at a point in my life where I’m ready to settle down.  I want to find a career that combines all of my interests and dedicate myself to it. I’d also like to get married some day.  I’m really an old-fashioned kind of guy at heart.”

Sam glanced over at the large shadow near the front door and grinned.  “Of course, I’d have to talk it over with Gort first.”

Hair: A Confession

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Stays Magazine

January 2010

I don’t like my hair. Never have. It is straight and boring and it has been slowly falling out since I was twenty years old. I can’t remember a day in my conscious life when I didn’t think about my hair and wish it was different. I always wanted thick, flowing locks on my head; the type of hair that looks natural behind the wheel of a convertible. You know, cool hair. But my hair does not look natural behind the wheel of a convertible. My hair looks natural behind the wheel of a bus. I don’t have Convertible Hair. I have Public Transportation Hair.

There are other things I don’t like about my body. My nose, for instance. It’s long and pointy, like a goddamn shark fin in the middle of my face. It looks like the Egyptians built a pyramid out of dry skin and blackheads underneath my eyes. Speaking of which: my eyes are okay, I guess. But they’re dark. Very dark. Like almost black. This would be fine, except I have pale skin, and the two just don’t match. I should have blue eyes, or at the very least, green. Hazel eyes would be nice. What’s the difference between green and hazel? Who cares? I want hazel eyes. Actually, forget blue, forget green and hazel; I should have tan skin to match my dark eyes. I always wanted smooth, caramel-colored skin. My brother has tan skin. He also has a normal-sized nose. I hate my brother. My knuckles are hairy. So are my arms. And my legs. We’re talking werewolf-type hairy here. Gorilla-type hairy. Old-Greek-man-walking-on-the-beach-in-a-Speedo-type hairy. My chest and back do not have excessive hair, but this only seems to draw attention to my hairy arms and legs. It’s like some mad scientist took a normal human torso and sewed orangutan appendages onto it.

This next part is kind of gross, and I understand if you don’t want to read it. In fact, I recommend that you do not. So I’ll give you the opportunity to bypass what I’m about to say and spare us both the embarrassment. Just stop reading right here and skip the next four paragraphs. Right here. Just lift your eyes from the page after this sentence and continue reading when the gross part is over. No? Are you sure? Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…

My buttocks are hairy.

See. I tried to tell you.

Both cheeks and also in the, um, crack. It’s like evolution in reverse. My body is trying to grow a tail. I really do believe this. The hairy knuckles, the arms, the legs, and now this. I am Darwinism undone. I am becoming a monkey.

It is especially cruel that hair is falling out on my head and growing on my ass. Sometimes I wonder if the two are related. Perhaps the follicles on my head have simply decided to uproot and move south for the warmer climate, like all those retired octogenarians in Florida.

Where I come from, men aren’t supposed to care about their physical appearance. Men are supposed to care about things like carburetors and guns and how to cook various meat products on the barbeque. Worrying about your hair is for women and Democrats.

All the men in my family are going bald, and we suffer this indignity in various ways.

My dad has a large collection of baseball hats that he wears to cover his receding hairline. Most of these hats feature the University of Nebraska’s mascot, which is a robust man in overalls holding an ear of corn. My dad is very athletic, but he wears these hats even when he is not participating in sports activities. For instance, we will go out to a nice restaurant, and he will wear a conservative blue dress shirt, a pair of tasteful gray slacks, and a fire-engine red hat that says “Nebraska Cornhuskers” right on the front. On the back, it says “GO BIG RED!”

My older brother Wayne has a similar collection of hats. One summer, Wayne went to work on our grandparents’ farm in Minnesota and came back with a new hat. It was something a gay Australian cowboy might wear, and he was very proud of it. No one was allowed to touch that hat. He said, “If you touch that hat, I will kill you.” There was a long list of things my brother would murder me for doing. Such as: “If you change the channel to cartoons while I’m watching football, I will kill you,” or, “If you drink the last Mountain Dew, I will kill you,” or, “If you don’t stop looking at me weird, I will kill you.” My brother has shoulders like a moose and could probably snap me in two if he wanted, but I’m not afraid of him. I once saw him rescue a baby mouse from a neighborhood cat. He picked up the mouse and took it to a safe place in the backyard. Afterwards, he said, “If you tell anyone I rescued that mouse, I will kill you.”

Of course, I touched his hat.

Not only did I touch it, I put it on and pretended I was Indiana Jones. The hat was too big. It kept falling down over my eyes while I was trying to kill Nazis, and I accidentally walked into a wall. The hat was scuffed. Not torn, not bent, just scuffed. I brushed it off and returned it to the exact spot on my brother’s dresser. I swear it looked exactly the same, but right away my brother knew what I’d done. He chased me around the house, and when he caught me, he said, “If you ever touch my things again, I will kill you.” And then he took me to get ice cream.

Wayne has a tan line on his forehead from wearing so many hats, but he doesn’t wear the gay Australian cowboy hat anymore. I don’t know what happened to it. I imagine it sitting in the back of his closet in a sealed glass box. One day, thousands of years from now, archaeologists will dig it up, brush off the dust, and read the inscription on the box: If you touch this hat, I will kill you.

When I was growing up, the only time I ever saw Grandpa Bridges without a hat was in church. I was told that it was disrespectful to wear hats in “God’s house.” But as soon as he stepped into the parking lot, Grandpa put his hat back on. Apparently, God doesn’t mind if you wear hats in His driveway.

When he’s not wearing a hat, you can see my grandpa’s comb over, which is amazing. The only hair he has left is around the edges of his head. On top, he’s as bald as a refrigerator. At some point in his life, my grandpa started parting his hair on the side and combing it over the top of his head to hide his receding hairline. In the beginning, this might have worked, but somewhere along the way things went horribly wrong. Now, my grandpa parts his hair on both sides of his head, just above each ear, and combs it to the top, where it meets in the middle and then moves forward, like a pair of don’t-pass lines in the center of a liver-spotted highway. My grandpa is a smart man but he can be slightly delusional at times. I sometimes wonder what he thinks when he looks in the mirror: “And now, I will comb these five hairs over my bald scalp like so… Perfect. No one will ever know.”

I don’t look good in hats, and I’m not at the comb-over stage just yet. But I have never liked my hair, so I drastically change it every couple of years. I’ve always thought that if I could just get the perfect haircut, the perfect style, the perfect look, I would have the perfect life. It hasn’t happened yet, but I keep trying.

Five Hair-Raising Moments:

ONE: I am seven years old. I have a rare kidney disorder, which causes me to get sick and stay home from school for months at a time. I don’t mind. I like staying home. As soon as everyone leaves the house, I go through their things. I put on my dad’s crazy 1970s suits and lip-sync to Elvis songs. I use my mom’s bras to slingshot marshmallows across the kitchen. When I get bored with my parents’ closet, I read books. I particularly like books about the Old West.

Today, I am reading a book about a tribe of American Indians called the Mohawks. The book says the Mohawks were part of a fierce warrior culture that would kill white settlers and take their scalps. The person who wrote the book obviously wants the reader to empathize with the white settlers, but I immediately side with the Indians.

There is a picture of a Mohawk warrior in the book. His skull is completely shaved on the sides, and the hair on top of his head is sticking straight up, like the plumage on some exotic bird. It is the coolest haircut I have ever seen.

I go to the kitchen and find a pair of scissors. I take the book and the scissors into the bathroom. I prop up the book on the bathroom sink so I can see the picture of the Mohawk warrior. And then I start to cut.

I’ve finished cutting the hair on one side of my head and I’m about to start on the other side when my mom comes home on her lunch break. I try to explain that I am part of a fierce warrior culture that kills white settlers and takes their scalps, but she refuses to listen. She takes me to the barber, who ruins my Mohawk hair by shaving my entire head. In other words, he scalps me. I look ridiculous. At school, kids laugh and call me Baldy and Humpty Dumpty, and it’s all my mom’s fault. She says I will thank her one day, but I never have.

Ten years later, Bobby Westfall sticks a safety pin through his nose and gets the exact same haircut that I tried to give myself in the bathroom when I was seven. He becomes instantly popular. I curse my mother.

TWO: I am twelve years old and my favorite television shows are Knight Rider and Magnum, P.I., both of which feature attractive male actors who drive around in sports cars and have thick, wavy hair. Since there’s very little chance my parents are going to buy me a Ferrari when I start sixth grade, I want thick, wavy hair. Nobody in my family has thick, wavy hair. We all have thin, straight hair.

However, the women in my family have a solution to this problem. Every month, my mom gives herself and my two younger sisters home permanents. This occurs in the kitchen, usually while my mom is cooking a pot roast.

Here’s what happens: My sisters sit on chairs at the dining table. My mom wraps towels around their shoulders. My sisters argue about who gets what towel. (“I want the blue one.” “You had the blue one last time.” “Fine, I’ll take the yellow one.” “No, I want the yellow one. You take the blue one.”) My mom squirts their hair with a bottle of Windex, which she has emptied and washed out and filled with water. My sisters tell her the water is too cold. My mom tells them to stop whining and be quiet. My mom rolls their hair up in plastic rollers. My sisters say, “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” My mom tells them to stop whining and be quiet. My mom applies some sort of chemical solution on their hair that smells like embalming fluid. My sisters cover their faces with their towels and say, “My eyes, my eyes! It stings!” I tell them to stop whining and be quiet. My mom tells me to mind my own beeswax. After about forty minutes, my mom takes out the rollers, and my sisters’ hair is magically curly. Four weeks later, they do it all over again.

I tell my mom I want to have my hair permed. She says no. I say please. She says no. I say pretty please. She says no. I say she’s a horrible mother and she never lets me do anything I want to do and I will run away from home and never speak to her again even on Christmas and Arbor Day and other major holidays. She says no. I say please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please— FINE! she says. “But remember, this was your idea.”

I sit at the dining table. My mom wraps a towel around my shoulder and squirts my hair with water from the Windex bottle. She rolls my hair up in plastic rollers. I say, “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” My mom tells me to stop whining and be quiet. She applies the embalming fluid. I cover my face with my towel and say, “My eyes, my eyes! It stings!” My sisters tell me to stop whining and be quiet. My mom tells them to mind their own beeswax. After forty minutes, she takes out the rollers. I rush to the bathroom mirror, expecting to see David Hasselhoff or Tom Selleck staring back at me. Instead, I find a fair-haired Little Orphan Annie. I find an Aryan Ronald McDonald. I have a blonde afro. I look like a dandelion.

I am not very popular at school already, and my new hairstyle does nothing to change this fact. If anything, the other kids think I’m even weirder than I was before. The boys in my class either avoid me completely or they call me names like “faggot,” “fairy,” or “butt pirate.” I don’t really know what these names mean, but I know they’re not making me more popular. Some of the girls talk to me. At first, I am thrilled by this, but then I realize they are asking me hairstyle questions. They don’t want me to be their boyfriend; they want me to be their sister. I don’t know much about dating, but I know this is not good.

Surprisingly, the negative reactions from my peers do not deter me. For an entire year, I force my mom to keep giving me perms. She protests, but she does it anyhow. Secretly, I think she enjoys the fact that she has such a stubbornly weird son.

THREE: I am twenty years old and I am in the middle of either my second sophomore year or my first junior year of college, depending on how you look at it. Like all twenty-year-old college students, I have decided that my parents are backwards and ignorant and I am going to be the exact opposite of them. This means I instantly reject all their conservative values and adopt liberal values. It’s an amazingly simple procedure. I throw away my Amy Grant CDs and buy a Rage Against the Machine poster. I hide my Bible under the bed and start carrying around a used copy of On the Road, which I pretend to read but never actually read because I secretly think the writing is terrible. I wear tie-dyed clothing. In public. With no sense of irony.

I purchase a marijuana cigarette from a stoner down the hall and smoke it in my dorm room while I drink a wine cooler, watch a rated R movie, and listen to secular music. Afterwards, I puke in the toilet for approximately seventeen hours.

I start growing my hair long in a belated attempt to become a hippie. My dad hated hippies when he was in college, so this is the perfect revenge. The year is 1995, which means I’ve only missed Woodstock by a few decades. I also get an earring and a tattoo. I am so rebellious it’s almost frightening. To go with my new hairstyle, I grow mutton chops and start writing free-verse poetry. I don’t know why.

My sister Sonya announces that she is getting married and asks me to be an usher at her wedding. This is perfect. My family has not mentioned my long hair yet, but they will not be able to ignore it now. I imagine a dramatic public scene involving a toppled wedding cake and the words “You are not my son!”

I go home for the wedding. When my mom sees how long my hair has grown, she wrinkles her nose and says, “Maybe you should get a haircut.”

Before I can deliver my scripted indignant response, my sister says, “Why? I like it. Maybe you can just put it in a ponytail. That’d be cute.”

“Or I could braid it for you,” says my brother. “That’d be adorable.”

Everyone laughs and the subject is closed. Two weeks later, I get a haircut.

FOUR: I am twenty-three years old. I have just graduated from college and I am completely and utterly lost. I have no idea what to do with my life. I have a bachelor’s degree in history, but I do not want to be a teacher and I don’t know what else to do with my extensive knowledge of World War II propaganda films. I rent an apartment across town from the college that I just graduated from. During the day, I work at a corporate book store, and at night, I read too much Ernest Hemingway and write minimalist short stories about my experiences in the Spanish-American War. I send my writing to literary magazines and receive rejection letters in return saying my stories don’t make sense. For some reason, I take this as a compliment. I am misunderstood; ergo, I am an artist.

After reading Siddhartha and seeing Seven Years in Tibet, I decide to become a Buddhist. This will solve all my problems. Unlike Christianity, which is oppressive and boring, Buddhism is from the East, which makes it exotic and cool. I’ve heard that Steven Segal is a Buddhist. So is Richard Gere. Of course, I’ve also heard that Richard Gere likes to put rodents in his anus, but I don’t think that has anything to do with achieving nirvana. At least, not for the rodents.

There’s a slight problem: I have no idea how to become a Buddhist. Should I stop eating meat? Do I need to purchase a gong? What about chanting? And yoga? How often should I trim my banzai tree? Of course, I could probably research the subject, but that sounds hard. What I really need is an elderly Chinese man to recite peaceful homilies while simultaneously showing me how to snap a man’s neck with my pinkie finger. Like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.

There’s not exactly a large elderly Chinese population in Greeley, Colorado, but I do the best I can. One of my coworkers is half Hawaiian, and I start writing down what he says, hoping to find the words of wisdom that will guide me on the path to enlightenment. Here’s what my half-Hawaiian coworker says: “I hate this job.” “Don’t you hate this job?” “I got so wasted last night, brah.” “This job sucks donkey balls.” “My girlfriend has huge tits, brah. No, seriously, they’re really big.” “I don’t mind the blacks, but the gays creep me out.” “I’m gonna quit this job.” “I think I got herpes, brah.”

Eventually, I decide the best way to become a Buddhist is to shave my head. I have seen numerous kung fu movies about ass-kicking Buddhist monks, and they always have shaved heads. I plug my electric hair clippers into the bathroom outlet and cut off all my hair. Afterwards, I lather my scalp with shaving cream and remove the stubble with a razor. I stare at my reflection in the mirror. I do not look like a Buddhist monk. I look like a skinhead. All I need is pair of Doc Martens and a swastika tattoo and I would be right at home spray-painting anti-Semitic graffiti on the side of a Synagogue. This is not a good look for me.

There might not be many elderly Chinese people in Greeley, but there is a substantial Jewish community. I did not realize this until I started looking like a cast member on the set of American History X. My next-door neighbor is Jewish. So is my landlord. And my boss. I had no problem with any of these people before, but now they give me strange looks and avoid talking to me. I can’t tell them that I shaved my head to become a Buddhist, because when I actually try to say those words out loud, I feel like the biggest jackass in the world.

The only person who treats me the same is my half-Hawaiian coworker. He says, “I never trusted those kikes either, brah. Have you seen my girlfriend’s tits?”

FIVE: I am twenty-seven years old, and I still want to be Ernest Hemingway. Instead of working harder to improve my writing, I decide to grow a beard and move to Europe. Hemingway lived in Paris during his early career. However, Paris is expensive and filled with French people, so I buy a ticket to Prague instead. On the plane, I practice calling myself an ex-patriot: “Hello, I’m Dale Bridges, writer and ex-patriot.” “Greetings. Dale. Ex-pat.” “Ciao, Ex-patriot Dale Bridges at your service.”

I find an apartment in the center of the city for $250 a month. This apartment has ten-foot ceilings, oak floors, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a furnished kitchen. It is by far the nicest place I’ve ever lived in my life. My roommates are two medical students who are studying at the local university. Deidrich is from Munich and Wade is from Houston. I immediately nickname them Da Fuhrer and The Redneck. They do not particularly like their nicknames.

It is strange living with medical students. For instance, Deidrich keeps a human skull on the kitchen table. I don’t necessarily mind this. In fact, I think it’s sort of quirky and amusing. But one day Deidrich tells me where he got the skull. “Dat zkull belonged to my grandfazer. He found it when he waz in ze zecond World War.” (Deidrich actually speaks perfect English, but I think it’s funnier to make him talk with an accent.)

My concern is this: Where does a German officer get a human skull in WWII?

I’m not saying Deidrich’s grandfather needs to make a trip to Nuremberg; I’m just saying it’s sketchy.

One day, Wade accidentally brings home something strange. He is digging around in his backpack for a notebook, when suddenly an odd look comes over his face. He picks up an object and holds it to the light. It looks like a melted rubber ball. “Yeehaw! Well, ain’t that the damnedest thang.” (Once again, the accent is just funnier.)

It’s a testicle from a male cadaver he dissected earlier that day.

“Musta fall’d in thar by mustake. Don’t mess with Texas!”

When I’m not hearing about Nazi war crimes or looking at some dead guy’s balls, I am growing out my beard and trying to comb my hair like Hemingway. It’s important that I look the part. After all, I am an ex-patriot now. Which is a lot like being a patriot, except you wear more turtlenecks.

After getting settled into the apartment, I hit the town.

Prague is the most beautiful city I have ever seen, but the Czechs don’t care. They’ve been conquered at least a dozen times, and they don’t have time to appreciate where they live because they are too busy grumbling about the administration in power, especially if it’s their own. Prague is famous for being the home of Franz Kafka, the guy who wrote The Metamorphosis, which is perfect—the citizens of Prague are gorgeous, intelligent people, but they all think of themselves as cockroaches dying of tuberculosis.

As a tubercular cockroach myself, I love Prague. Perhaps a little too much. I start going out every day. I see street markets and castles and bistros and bars, but I don’t see much of my computer screen, which is what I’m supposed to be looking at while I write my novel. For nine months I have the time of my life, but I have nothing to show for it except an empty bank account and a drinking problem. No novel. No European supermodel girlfriend.

I fly home with my tail tucked between my legs. When I get off the plane, my friend Chris says, “What’s up with the beard, Hemingway? You trying to write The Old Homeless Man and the Sea?” I shave my beard, get a haircut, and then I punish Chris by sleeping on his couch for the next six months.

Biologically, hair is just long strands of fiber growing out of your skin, but culturally, it’s like your own personal magic talisman. Nothing else on your body can change your life in such dramatic ways. Grow your hair long and you’re a hippie. Cut it short and you’re an insurance salesman. Change the color and you’re a washed-up pop singer desperately trying to get attention.

Hair sends a message to the world: This is who I want to be.

During the course of writing this essay, I have looked at my hair in the mirror approximately five-hundred times. I have combed it to the right, and I have combed it to the left. I have combed it back, and I have combed it forward. I have done everything in my power to make my hair represent who I want to be, but it’s no good. That’s because I’ve never really decided who I want to be. Today, I’m a starving writer. Tomorrow, I might be a documentary filmmaker. Or an aspiring actor. Or a Mohawk warrior.

In the past, people have suggested that I get plastic surgery or try Rogaine if I’m dissatisfied with my appearance. That’s how things work in our culture now. If your body does not conform to your self-delusion, you go to the doctor and get beach balls implanted in your chest.

I think the idea of hair plugs is funny, especially if they took the hair from my ass and transplanted it to my head. I can just imagine those follicles waking up one day and saying, “What the hell? How’d we get back up here?”

But I will never cosmetically alter my body. Personally, I think that’s cheating. I may not like my hair, but it’s mine. We’re in this together.

Besides, I have a better solution for improving my appearance. It’s an old family secret that has been passed down for generations, and it goes a little something like this: “And now, I will comb these five hairs up over my bald scalp like so… Perfect. No one will ever know.”

Denim Virgins

January 14, 2012

Originally published in the Umbrella Factory

August 2010

It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, but when I was a young man, I used to masturbate with my clothes on. Late at night, while all the other teenage boys in America were either having sex or at least pleasuring themselves in the nude, I would flagellate the sinful bulge in the crotch of my Bugle Boys until I achieved an orgasm. I never actually touched my penis unless I was urinating or taking a shower.

I was twenty years old when I stopped doing this. That was 1995, the year I switched from briefs to boxers. It would be three more years before I worked up the courage to have sex with an actual female—and I kept my shirt on during the entire process.

To say that I was sexually repressed would be a bit of an understatement. Homosexual teenagers in Utah are sexually repressed. Muslim women in Iran are sexually repressed. I, on the other hand, had problems.

My father was a small-town evangelical preacher, and he believed in four things: Jesus, America, Nebraska Cornhusker football, and abstinence. In that order.

My first real kiss occurred the summer before my fifteenth birthday on a warm, starry evening at church camp. I was at the peak of my physical and emotional awkwardness, and had already resigned myself to a life of celibacy. That year, my body underwent an unholy transformation that can only be described as the opposite of the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis. My nose and ears doubled in size overnight, and my skin began to produce a strange, oily goop that could not be washed off despite obsessive showering habits and special-order skin-care products. To add insult to injury, my vocal cords couldn’t seem to decide whether I should be an alto or a soprano, so every time I tried to say hello to a girl, I sounded like a yodeling transsexual. I was a disgusting, greasy, inarticulate, pre-teen swamp monster.

And for reasons I still can’t explain, I constantly smelled like bologna.

The girl was also a freak. Her name was Susan, and she looked as though she had been raised in a windowless cellar by a family of Transylvanian vampires. Her skin was not just white; it appeared to be translucent. You could actually see the tiny, blue veins snaking through her hands, and I always wondered (though I never got the opportunity to find out) if, when she was topless, one could watch her heart and kidneys in action. The porcelain hue of her skin was made even more apparent by her mousey brown hair, which was parted in the middle and hung down like a mourner’s shroud over her sallow face. If she had possessed a sardonic wit or a clever sneer, Susan might have been mistaken for the cool Goth-girl type. But she did not have the confidence to be cool. She was timid and skittish and she rarely ate anything except buttered noodles because “exciting foods” disturbed her stomach. I fell in love with her instantly.

Emotions tend to run pretty high at church camp. You gather a group of insecure junior-high students together at a secluded mountain commune, force them to listen to Christianized versions of popular rock songs every day, and eventually some of them are gonna crack. Of course, our emotions were supposed to be focused on Jesus, but sometimes they got sidetracked. The camp counselors called these moments “setbacks.”

Susan and I suffered our first setback at twilight behind a grove of aspen trees next to the chapel/cafeteria. There were about a billion stars in the sky that evening and the air smelled like fresh pine needles and I was nervous and sort of gassy because it was Taco Tuesday night in the cafeteria and I kept trying to release silent farts when Susan wasn’t looking and then I would wave them away before she could detect them. The sweat pouring off my face mingled with the lemon-flavored lozenge in Susan’s mouth (she suffered from numerous allergies that caused sniffles and fits of coughing), making our kiss both salty and sweet. Despite the flatulence and the sniffling, it was the greatest night of my young life. To this day, the smell of cold medication on a woman’s breath makes my heart quicken.

After that, Susan and I had setbacks every afternoon following lunch and usually right before bed check. Our encounters were only partly sexual; we spent most of the time holding hands, talking about our limited life experiences, and working up the courage to lock lips once again. It was the type of tongue-less, dry (except for the sweat, of course) kissing that only naïve romantics find erotic.

On the second-to-last day of camp, our secret rendezvous were uncovered by a nosey lunch lady with a wart the size of Krakatoa on her witchy chin. We were both required to meet one-on-one with the Head Counselor, a 30-somethingish man named Gene who thought he understood our generation because he listened to Bryan Adams and sometimes wore his baseball cap backwards.

I don’t know what Gene told Susan, but I was informed that my soul was in danger. Satan was everywhere, said Gene. He was in the music I listened to and the movies I watched. He was in my non-Christian friends at school and the Stephen King books that I read for pleasure. But most of all, Satan was in my pants. Whenever I felt sexual attraction or excitement, that was Satan popping up to say howdy. By kissing Susan behind the chapel/cafeteria, I was damning both of our souls to Hell. We would burn in a fiery pit for all eternity, and for what? A few, dry, lemon-flavored smooches? Was it really worth it?

“Yes!” I wanted to scream. “It’s worth it, Gene, you smug little prick! And by the way, Bryan Adams sucks!”

But of course, I didn’t say that. I was fourteen and not nearly as brave as I wanted to be.

Instead, I broke down and began to cry. I promised that it would never ever happen again. I was a sinner. I was scum. I was a disgusting, greasy, inarticulate pre-teen swamp monster who constantly smelled like bologna. Gene nodded in agreement. He put his hands on my shoulders and prayed for God to cleanse me of my evil desires, and when it was over, I blubbered a submissive, “Amen.”

That night, I stayed awake in my bunk, staring at the ceiling and trying to work up the courage to sneak out and meet Susan. Was she at our spot waiting for me? Dare I risk the wrath of God for one last kiss? Dare I? Dare I?

I did not dare.

Susan’s parents arrived early the next morning, and I watched them drive away from my hiding place behind the grove of elm trees next to the chapel/cafeteria.

I was a melodramatic child, and although I’d known Susan for a total of five days, I mourned our separation for almost a year. I built up our brief encounter in my imagination until it became an epic tragedy, on par with Romeo and Juliet—or at least Joanie and Chachie. Wouldst I ever findeth true love again? Me thinketh not. My parents both came from stoic, Midwestern stock, and they didn’t understand their weepy little son. It’s not that they were insensitive; they were simply incapable of talking about emotions or sex. I made several attempts to bring up the subject, but every time I approached my dad, he answered by clearing his throat and turning up the volume on the television, and my mom simply volunteered to bake a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies.

This was why I didn’t understand my father’s reaction when he received a letter from my school requesting permission for me to attend a bi-weekly sex education class. The letter stated that we were to learn about penises, vaginas, condoms, and “heavy petting.” I didn’t know what half of those terms meant. I thought my parents would be relieved to pass along the responsibility of teaching me the birds and the bees, but that wasn’t the case. At the bottom of the letter, there were two options: (1) Yes, I agree to allow my child to attend this class, or (2) No, I do not agree to allow my child to attend this class. My father circled the latter with a red marker. Then, in the side margin, he wrote: ABSOLUTELY NOT!

When I brought the letter to my health teacher, he regarded me with pity and said that I could spend those bi-weekly hours in the library, where I read Spider-Man comic books while the alcoholic librarian, Ms. Dunkirk, sipped her “Irish coffee” and glared at me out of the corner of her good eye. I was the only student at Yuma High School who did not learn about heavy petting. Consequently, my petting skills are atrocious. Once, in college, I permanently damaged the right nipple of an unfortunate Alpha Phi in a horrible petting mishap. Her areola will never be the same.

My parents explained to me that sex should be taught in the home, not in the school. This is not such a terrible assertion. After all, there are countless sexual traditions and practices around the world that are probably best passed on to future generations by conscientious parental figures. My own family’s oral tradition was fairly simple: During a commercial break in the middle of an episode of Highway to Heaven, my father lowered his voice to a whisper and said, “When you’re with a young lady, remember that Jesus is right there beside you, watching you every step of the way.” I nodded, and we turned back to the television, where Michael Landon was zapping bad guys with his angel powers.

It’s incredibly difficult to have an orgasm while Jesus is watching you. He looks at you with those sad, blue eyes and scratches His beard and says things like, “That’s not where you’re supposed to put that,” and, “I’m telling my Dad.” Jesus is such a tattle-tale; that’s one thing the New Testament never mentions.

My father’s lecture served its purpose—I remained a virgin throughout high school and most of college. However, I was a denim virgin. For those who don’t know, a “denim virgin” is a young man or woman, usually a teenage Christian, who participates in the act of copulation while fully clothed. Bare genitals are not touched and no penetration occurs, although it is permissible to fondle the chest area as long as shirts are not removed.

The first time I did not have sex was with Karen Davis during my junior year of high school. She was a Lutheran cheerleader, and, therefore, an evil temptress, just like Delilah and Jezebel and Cher. Karen was the opposite of Susan—charismatic, blonde, the girl in the Noxzema commercials who doesn’t need Noxzema—and I was always worried that one day she would realize that I was a toad trying to pass myself off as a prince.

Karen and I nearly humped one another to death. This normally occurred in the front seat of my parents’ 1974 Ford Granada. We didn’t go to the back seat because that would have been a conscious acknowledgment of our sinful intentions. Instead, we pretended that each grope session was a freak accident that would never happen again.

After watching a movie or attending a local sporting event, Karen and I would drive down to Lake Yuma, which was actually a giant drainage ditch where all the gutter water in town flowed during the rainy season. We would sit in the parked car and talk about innocuous subjects, waiting for an opportunity to initiate some sort of physical contact. This usually happened in the form of tickling. Karen would bait me by saying something sassy and cute, in the vein of, “You’re such a weirdo.” I would respond with something incredibly intelligent, such as, “Oh, yeah,” and then retaliate by poking her in innocent, yet desirable anatomic locations (knees, tummy, hips, etc.). Karen would fight back by straddling me and grabbing my wrists. Giggling was followed by kissing, which was followed by necking, which was followed by Karen grinding on top of me like a wedge of cheddar on a cheese grater until I had an orgasm.

Yes, in my pants.

Afterwards, there were usually tears and apologies and promises that such a horrible thing would never happen again. Of course, it happened again about five times every week, until I finally graduated and moved to college.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ and immediately found an entire harem of denim virgins at my disposal. Everywhere I looked, there were sexually repressed Christians who wanted to make-out and then pray and then make-out some more. I became a complete slut without ever having sex. Sometimes I would not have sex with a girl and then not call her the next day. I was a Christian cad, a Protestant playboy. This went on until the youth pastor politely suggested that perhaps I should join one of the fraternities on campus.

At this point, I suppose I could have done some serious soul searching. I could have gone to the library and compared the theological arguments of C.S. Lewis to the atheist rhetoric of Bertrand Russell. I could have formed my own conclusions about the morality of traditional religious thought as compared to modern intellectualism. I could have done a lot of things, but I didn’t. Instead, I simply replaced my fundamentalist Christian beliefs with fundamentalist liberal beliefs. It was a fair trade, and I figured it would be easier than doing all that nasty reading.

I threw away my Amy Grant albums and started listening to Rage Against the Machine. I frequented dimly lit coffee shops, where I sat in the corner dressed in black and pretended to read Noam Chomsky. Very soon, I attracted the attention of a group of intellectual hippies who were amused by my conservative upbringing. I smoked pot and told them funny stories about my childhood, and we all laughed at my backwater family. I thought I was very clever and bohemian.

One day, following a protest march against either cruelty to animals, war, or pesticides (after a while, they all began to blend together), a glassy-eyed hippie girl invited me back to her dorm room, where she proceeded to deflower me. It was a painless, almost clinical experience, and afterwards I made the mistake of asking the girl if she had enjoyed herself. “Not really,” she said. “Next time, it would be better if you took your clothes off.” I looked down and realized that I was still wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt with a giant peace sign on the front.

I should have been embarrassed. After all, I’d just had my first sexual experience with a woman, and I had failed to remove my clothing, which is pretty much the most rudimentary part of the process. On the other hand, the world had not come to an end. Jesus did not ride down from Heaven on a white horse and smote my penis or anything like that. Therefore, I decided to ignore the girl’s criticism and focus on the two words she’d said that really intrigued me: next time.

All Dolls Go to Heaven

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Foliate Oak

September 2011

Something strange happened in the mid 1980s, and one day, every child in America went crazy for Cabbage Patch Kids at the same time.  It was like they were pod people, and the alien race that spawned them had contaminated our atmosphere with a virus, causing everyone under the age of ten to covet these freaky, pudgy-faced replicas of ourselves.  The disease spread quickly, and soon the entire country was infected.  Symptoms included a tiresome, whining noise produced by spoiled children, which increased in volume and frequency as the Christmas season approached.  To stop the whining, indulgent parents were forced to visit their local toy stores in search of these ugly, overpriced dolls and then present them as gifts to appease their annoying offspring.

But it wasn’t that simple.  Suppliers were unable to keep up with the rising demand, and it soon became apparent that—horror of horrors!—some children would be Cabbage Patchless on Christmas morning.  This was reported on the nightly news alongside stories of local homicides and babies born into drug addiction.  The cameras showed haggard-looking parents lined up outside of malls at five o’clock in the morning, their faces blue, their breath white.  When asked by the newswoman (it’s always women that report shopping stories) why they were torturing themselves for a toy, the parents looked woefully into the camera and said, “I just don’t want to disappoint my kids on Christmas.”

It was a competition over who loved their children most, and the winning parents received one excited squeal, followed by a lifetime supply of Xanax.

My sisters and I desperately wanted Cabbage Patch Kids for Christmas, much to my father’s chagrin.  He didn’t mind such a request from his little girls, but I think his heart broke a little when he discovered his son wanted to play with dolls.

“Oh, leave him alone,” my mother said.  “It’s just a phase.  He’ll grow out of it.”

But my father wasn’t so sure.  He’d seen my other phases: playing house with my sisters, singing along to The Sound of Music with my mother, embroidering pillow cases.  He would come home from work and ask if I wanted to throw the ol’ pigskin around.

“Just a minute,” I’d say.  “I need to finish this needlepoint pattern, and then I’ll be right with you.”

My father’s shoulders would sag and he would search out my brother, who was always up for a game of catch with an inflated animal carcass.

As a traditionalist, my father disapproved of many modern Christmas rituals.  Lights, for example.  He didn’t like those.  What did colorful bulbs hanging from your storm drains have to do with the birth of the Messiah?  There was no electricity in Bethlehem.  It was ridiculous to decorate your house with lights.  Also, it was a fire hazard.  And candy canes!  You didn’t want to get him started on candy canes.  Those J-shaped peppermint treats were an abomination that distracted children from the true meaning of the holiday.  Do you think Mary and Joseph were sucking on striped sugar molds as they plodded across the countryside on their way to the inn?  No, they did not.  Also, they caused cavities.

On this particular Christmas, my father decided he was against trees.  Not all of them, just the ones that inspired peace and good will toward men.  He refused to purchase a seasonal evergreen, insisting that decorating a plant and placing gifts under it was some sort of pagan tradition.

“Trees have nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas,” he said.  “Why don’t we just sacrifice a goat in the kitchen or have a séance in the bathtub?  It’s basically the same thing”

The goat idea did not sound pleasant, but my youngest sister Cheri and I were intrigued by the possibility of talking to ghosts.

“But we could never get the whole family in the bathtub at the same time,” Cheri said.  “That’s ridiculous.  We should do it in the hall closet.  It’s creepier in there anyhow.”

“That’s not the point,” my father said.  “The point is…”

But by that time, we had stopped listening and were busy trying to figure out what to serve for the occasion.

“Do you think ghosts eat cheese?” Cheri asked.

“Only if it’s Swiss or Provolone,” I said.  “Not Velveeta.  Ghosts only eat white food because that’s what makes them glow in the dark.  Everyone knows that.”

My father tried to turn the conversation back to the subject of Christmas, but we would have none of it.  As far as Cheri and I were concerned, his reputation was already shot.  He’d tried to pull a similar stunt the previous Easter, claiming we shouldn’t paint eggs or consume marshmallowy Peeps because Jesus happened to rise from the dead on the same day the Easter Bunny came to town.  It didn’t make sense that we should suffer just because those two couldn’t get their calendars straight, and so we began an extended whimpering campaign designed to wear down our father’s defenses.  In the end, our mother negotiated a truce, and we ate Cadbury Eggs and chocolate rabbits while watching Jesus of Nazareth on television.  The Christmas-tree ban reeked of unfairness.  Our father was trying to persecute us for our religious beliefs, which were protected under The Bill of Rights or the Pledge of Allegiance or something old and important, and we would not stand for it.

Cheri and I couldn’t understand why we had suddenly been denied our annual tinsel fix; therefore, while my parents were away at work, we took matters into our own hands.  Neither of us could operate a chainsaw or heft an ax, so cutting down a wild fir from the forest was out of the question.  Also, we lived in the middle of the prairie, and the nearest forest was two-hundred miles away.  So, there was that.  We briefly considered breaking into our wealthy neighbor’s house down the street and stealing one of the three unnecessarily-large, pretentiously-bright trees from their imitation-brick castle, but decided that was just too Grinch-like.  Also, neither of us knew how to pick a lock.

Finally, our backs against the wall, we found an enormous tumbleweed in the ditch behind our house and dragged it onto the driveway, where we proceeded to defile the mummified shrub with florescent-green spray paint, our neighbors looking on in horror.  Afterward, we set it up in the living room and plastered it with every shiny object we could find.

When our mother returned home, she found us covered in glitter and swooning from paint fumes.  “I don’t know how I feel about this,” she said, hands on hips, staring at the gleaming spoons and plastic jewelry we’d taped to our palsied plant to make it sparkle.  “This is definitely not good.  We need to fix this.”So she put some popcorn in the microwave, and we spent the evening stringing it together to decorate our Christmas weed.

“What is that?” my father asked when he saw the prickly dead bush sitting in our living room, a star made from yellow construction paper duct taped to the top.  “You said you didn’t want a tree,” replied my mother.  “Well, it’s not a tree.”

My father grumbled, but he didn’t make us take it down.  And, that is how it came to pass that our family gathered together around a large, highly-flammable weed to open presents on Christmas morn.  Just like in the Bible.

To this day, I have no idea how my mother obtained our Cabbage Patch Kids in the midst of that psychotic media blizzard.  There were no toy stores in Yuma, and my parents were not the type of people who just up and flew to Chicago or New York City on a whim.  This was before the Internet turned holiday shopping into a national bidding war between desperate soccer moms and entrepreneurial computer nerds.  All my mother had was an outdated JC Penney catalogue and an overwhelming desire to please her children.  It was a Christmas miracle. Of course, they saved the good stuff for last, making us wade through a series of colorfully-wrapped tube socks and notebooks before we finally got to the cool presents.  I was so excited when I finally tore open the last package.

It was a boy!  But he didn’t look much like me.  He had black hair made out of yarn, and his eyes were large, blue, and incredibly creepy.  The expression on his fat face closely resembled Renaissance paintings of the baby Jesus, which seemed appropriate considering the circumstances.  He wore a flannel shirt underneath a pair of denim overalls.  On his feet were plastic tennis shoes tied with real string.  It wasn’t an outfit I would have picked for myself, but then again, as my father’s deflated expression indicated, parents couldn’t dictate their children’s desires.  If my son wanted to dress like a Depression-Era redneck, I wasn’t going to stand in his way.  I named him Jericho. Jerry for short.

I had a rather large collection of stuffed animals that were arranged in my room just so.  The dogs were on the dresser, the cats were posed above the headboard of the bed, the exotic animals (lions, tigers, monkeys, etc.) were lurking on the bookcase, and the aquatic animals swam around underneath the bed.  I rotated the stuffed animals that slept in bed with me in order to prevent jealousy and political infighting amongst the groups.

Jerry immediately became prince of my little animal kingdom and took his place beside me in bed.  After I explained the situation to the other stuffed animals and positioned Jerry in a comfortable spot on my right, my parents came to tuck me in.  They always tried to get through the process without answering a million questions, but I rarely allowed that to happen.

“Will Jerry go to heaven?” I asked.

“No,” my father said immediately.  “Absolutely not.  That thing is a toy, and there are no toys in heaven.”

“His name is Jerry,” I said.


“He prefers to be called Jerry and not that thing.”  My father made a familiar, strangling noise, which was something that often happened when he was talking to me.  I continued.  “Because I’m worried about Jerry going to hell.  He has a plastic face, and I’m afraid the fire would melt it off.”

“That thing is not going to hell either,” said my father.  His neck was starting to get red the way it sometimes did when the Nebraska Cornhuskers were losing at football.  “It’s a toy filled with stuffing.  It’s not alive.  In the Bible it says…”

“But what about the Scarecrow?” I said.

“The what?”

“The Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz was filled with stuffing, and he was alive.”  I paused to consider this.  “But he didn’t have a brain.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Can Jerry go to heaven if he doesn’t have a brain?”

“The Scarecrow is not alive either.”

“Yes-huh.  If he wasn’t alive, how would he be able to help Dorothy find the Emerald City?”

“That was a movie.”

“Lots of movies are about real stuff.”

“But this one isn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“But how do you know?”

My father raised his hands in the air like a criminal surrendering to a SWAT team.  “That’s it!” he said.  “I’ve had enough.  I’m going to bed.”  He turned to my mother on his way out.  “You bought him that…doll, so you deal with this.”We watched him leave, and then my mother said, “Roll over on your stomach so I can rub your back.”  She sat on the edge of my bed.  I rolled over, and my mother ran her fingers over my back, which was relaxing and made me sleepy.

“Is Dad mad at me?” I asked.

“He’s just grumpy,” she said.  “Don’t pay any attention to him.”

“I’m still worried about Jerry.  Do you think he’ll go to heaven?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “But heaven is a paradise, right?”


“And what is a paradise?”

“A paradise is a perfect place.”

“That’s right.  And, would heaven be a perfect place if Jerry wasn’t there?”


“Then there’s your answer,” she said.  “Now roll back over and accept your punishment.”

I rolled over, and she kissed me on the nose.

“Jerry, too,” I said.

She kissed Jerry on the nose, as well, and then left the room.

I was thankful for my mother’s reassurances, but I was still worried.  There was a hole in her logic.  In order for people to go to heaven, they had to be baptized.  My father had delivered numerous sermons on the subject, and he was adamant about it.  It didn’t matter what you believed, if you died without being baptized, you were going to H-E-double hockey sticks.  It’s possible that Jerry’s former owner had given him proper theological instruction, but I couldn’t take that chance.  I would have to solve this baptism problem, and fast.

My parents both worked full time, which left a two-hour window after school during which my siblings and I were left unsupervised.  It’s surprising how much mayhem you can cause and then cover up in one hundred and twenty minutes.  We once turned our entire basement into a medieval castle, stormed it, broke two lamps and a hair dryer, and still managed to have everything back in order before our parents walked through the door.  It was like a scene from Mary Poppins, except there was no duet between an uptight British nanny and Dick Van Dyke.

Two hours was more than enough time for me to baptize Jerry before my father came home.  I filled the bathtub with cold water and lit several candles.  I don’t remember what the candles were for now, but they seemed appropriate at the time.  I instructed my siblings to change into their Sunday clothes, and after I put on the finest clip-on tie in my collection, I brought Jerry to the bathroom.

It was a simple ceremony.  I asked Jerry if he believed that Jesus was the son of God.  He said that he did.  I pushed him under water for a few minutes, and that was that.

At least that would have been that if I hadn’t remembered the mob of unrepentant stuffed animals living in my bedroom.  There was Curious George and Scooby Doo and Harry Dog and Theodora Bear.  They were all heathens.  How could I have been so foolish?  I ran to my room and started hauling armloads of stuffed animals to the bathroom.  It was quite a collection of furry anthropomorphized sinners.  I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I was cleansing the Cookie Monster’s soul when my mother came home.

“I see we’ve been busy,” she said as she stood in the bathroom doorway.  She looked at the pile of soggy animals in the hamper. “Swimming lessons?”

“Baptism,” I said.

“I see.  Are you done?”

“Two more.”

She thought about this for a few seconds, and then she took off her jacket and picked up the hamper.  “Finish up and bring them downstairs,” she said.  “You have a big mess to clean up, young man.”I finished baptizing Cookie Monster and Big Bird, and then I joined my mother downstairs, where the dryer was making a heavy plunk-plunk-plunk sound as it rotated.

“Are they okay in there?” I asked.

My mother nodded.  “They’ll be fine.  You get some towels and clean up the bathroom.  I’ll keep an eye out on your disciples.”

“Good thinking,” I said.  I ran upstairs to get rid of the evidence.

Off the Grid

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Eclectica Magazine

October 2011

In 1980 my father obtained a full-time preaching position at a small church on the Colorado prairie, and our family moved into a pink farmhouse just outside the city limits of a town called Fort Morgan. I was excited about our new residence, primarily because I expected to be living inside some sort of walled garrison, wearing a coon-skin hat and fighting off Injuns with my trusty musket. My pioneer fantasy was momentarily crushed, however, when I learned that the city had earned its “Fort” prefix during the 1800s, and since that time the local white men had shed their coon-skin headgear in favor of grease-stained baseball caps, which they wore as they trudged through the streets every morning on their way to work at the local sugar-beet factory.

Ours wasn’t a real farm, just a house at the end of a long, dirt driveway, but there was enough land for a chicken coop next to the garage and a small garden, to be tended by my mother. Still, my father insisted this was our opportunity to live “off the grid,” a phrase he often used after watching too many episodes of Little House on the Prairie. “Just imagine,” he said, “giant carrots plucked right out of the earth! Fresh eggs for breakfast!” We would weave our own socks with a loom and then beat them against a rock on laundry day. When baths were needed, water would be fetched in buckets from the well and soap would be made from lye and lard. Who needed expensive modern appliances? Material trappings were for those hedonistic Hollywood types who graced the covers of celebrity gossip magazines. No more glossy centerfolds for us. In fact, no more television or radio, either. From now on, songbirds would be our pop stars and sunsets our nightly news. We would study the beetles with the same passion and amazement that our peers studied The Beatles. At some point, we might even trade in our Ford Granada for a couple of prancing white horses and a wooden carriage. Could I wear a coon-skin hat? You bet I could. And maybe even a sweater made from coyote pelts to go with it. Anything was possible because we would be completely self-sufficient. Just like the settlers of ye olden days.

The idea was to wean ourselves off the teat of mainstream society and eventually go underground. No bank accounts, no social security numbers, no way for Big Brother to track us down and tattoo barcodes on our foreheads. We were going to separate ourselves from the frills of secular culture by adopting a simpler, purer way of life. True, the world was falling apart all around us—satanic rock bands constantly screamed obscenities on the radio, godless communists threatened to obliterate freedom-loving countries with nuclear weapons, liberal intellectuals taught their students that human beings evolved from chimps—but if we could just maintain complete control over our tiny section of the prairie, perhaps our souls would escape the chaos uncorrupted.

In spite of my father’s histrionics (or perhaps because of them), there was a certain rustic romanticism in this proposed lifestyle that I found appealing at first. I’d inherited more than my fair share of my father’s delusional nature and fancied myself quite the heroic frontiersman, despite the fact that I was a small, sickly child who rarely enjoyed physical activities—what is commonly known in playground circles as “kind of a wuss.” My pioneer daydreams were indirectly connected to a collection of children’s books called the Little Patriot Series, which featured fictionalized accounts of notable figures such as Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Sam Houston. I wasn’t quite old enough to read them myself, but I enjoyed the pictures and often forced my overworked mother to read them aloud before bedtime. While not altogether historically accurate, the novels were filled with tales of barrel-chested men who wrestled grizzly bears by day and slept under a canopy of stars by night. According to legend, some of these trailblazers could shoot the wings off a housefly at 20 paces and kill a mountain lion with a single, mighty blow to the kidney. The writing wasn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize material, but the authors knew how to turn a simile. Tough as nails, fast as a jackrabbit, strong as an ox. It was enough to excite the imagination of any red-blooded, semi-literate boy. Beholden to no man and afraid of no beast, these hardy patriots exemplified the spirit of American freedom and self-determination, and I wanted to be just like them. Or so I thought.

It turns out, living off the grid is a lot more arduous and boring than one might imagine. Chores were assigned, and I soon found myself being forced out of bed before sunrise to water the tomato plants or collect warm, poop-covered eggs from the feathered nether regions of manic hens. On Saturdays, when other children were watching cartoons in their footie pajamas, my brother and I were outside gathering icicles and buckets of snow, which would later be melted down by our mother for drinking water. The work never ended. As soon as you finished weeding the garden, it was time to shingle the roof or dig some postholes or make strawberry preserves in preparation for the upcoming winter. These tasks were neither fun nor patriotic, and I wanted no part of them.

Things seemed to take a turn for the better when my father decided to add a pregnant sow and a hut full of rabbits to our little ark. But my initial optimism dissipated when I learned what real pioneers did with piglets and bunnies. Apparently, Daniel Boone did not take cuteness into account when surviving in the wilderness. The rabbits were skinned and the pigs gutted, the meat either sold to neighbors or dried, salted, and made into jerky. This always happened, conveniently enough, while the children were at soccer practice or visiting relatives for the weekend. When we returned, the rabbit hut would be empty and the kitchen would be filled with the delicious, gamy aroma of stew.

Somehow it was decided that participating in the execution of four-legged mammals would be traumatic for the youngins, but watching poultry get slaughtered would have no adverse psychological affects whatsoever. Therefore, every summer the entire family got together and butchered a dozen chickens in the backyard. My job was to chase down the fat, headless bodies after my father decapitated them with an ax. Normally our chickens were slothful creatures that could barely be bothered to waddle a few feet for their morning feeding, but apparently all they needed was a good, swift whack in the neck to motivate them. Afterward, they flopped around for several minutes, beating their wings as they scampered blindly across the driveway like drunken Olympic sprinters, leaving behind a trail of blood and feces. The phrase “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off” took on a whole new meaning. I followed the headless cadavers until they ran out of energy and fell, seemingly exhausted, to the ground. Then I grabbed their weird lizard feet and dragged them over to my mother, who plucked the feathers and disemboweled their naked remains. Sometimes my brother would put one of the severed heads on his index finger and chase my sisters around the house with it. Chicken-head puppets, that’s what we called them.

But, alas, not every day could be as exciting as Chicken-Head Puppet Day, and I quickly grew tired of living off the fat of the land. Apparently, the land had become anorexic. Hard work and sacrifice were not what I’d signed up for. Staring down buffalos and fighting off Comanches were the adventures I was after. The fact that I would have soiled myself at the sight of either was beside the point. If I couldn’t have fun being a pioneer, why bother? Freedom and self-determination are nice in theory, but when it comes down to who’s going to castrate the farm animals, I think we can all agree there’s something to be said for shallow materialism.

I decided that my parents were holding me back. It was fine with me if they wanted to live like a couple of Dust Bowl hermits, but it wasn’t fair to force that lifestyle on their innocent, postmodern offspring. Why not join the 20th century and live a little? After all, I was fortunate enough to be growing up in the Golden Age of Spoiled Children. It was the 1980s, and juvenile greed was at an all time high. Everywhere I turned, my peers were holding their breath and throwing temper tantrums in an effort to acquire the latest incontinent doll or comic book action figure. Baby Boomer parents seemed powerless against such techniques. Advertisers picked up on this, and soon there were million-dollar marketing campaigns directed at pint-sized customers who did not actually have any money of their own. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Twinkies, Cap’n Crunch, Hot Wheels. How could a five-year-old afford such treasures? The goal was to loosen the parental purse strings by encouraging children to behave like jackals feeding off a lion’s kill. If we harassed the lion long enough, eventually it would grow tired of our yelping and abandon the Hungry Hungry Hippos carcass. Then we could fight amongst ourselves over what remained of the cheap, plastic cadaver.

My parents raised me to be an obedient child, but I was open to other options. The problem was, I didn’t have a role model. My siblings were all respectful and well-behaved by nature, traits that were of no use to me whatsoever in my new position as Generation X Brat. No, it was obvious that I would have to look outside my family for inspiration.

My mentor finally presented himself one day in the unlikeliest of places: the breakfast aisle at Safeway. This was where I saw a kindergartner named Tommy slap his mother in the face because she had the audacity to put oatmeal in their grocery cart instead of Count Chocula. When this happened, I was shopping for cereal with my own mother, who politely turned away from the scene and pretended to be engrossed in the list of ingredients on a box of Grape Nuts. However, unencumbered by good manners, I gawked at the little monster and took careful mental notes.

The child was sitting in the fold-out seat for toddlers at the top of the grocery cart, a perch for which he was obviously too big. His fat thighs barely fit through the wire slots designed to hold them, and his mother had to keep one hand on the cart at all times to prevent it from tipping over. The other hand was busy fending off the constant barrage of kicks and punches the boy directed at the woman despite her quiet protests. “Stop that, Tommy.” “Put that down, Tommy.” “Please don’t punch Mommy in the throat again, Tommy.” I was amazed. Up to this point, I’d been under the impression that the adults were in charge of the planet, but this underage tyrant proved who was really in power. Tommy ruled his household with an iron sippy cup. When he wasn’t physically abusing his mother, he was shrieking and throwing stolen Skittles at passing customers. “I’m so sorry,” said the mother after a piece of red candy bounced off the permed head of an elderly woman. “He’s normally not like this.” The old lady looked at the boy sitting in the grocery cart, his pudgy hands and face covered in rainbow carnage, and she nodded kindly. It was all too obvious that little Tommy was like this all the time, and his mother simply made excuses for his horrible behavior. Somehow the innocent angel that emerged from her loins just a few short years ago had transformed into a Third World dictator with a sugar addiction. And his mother had been assigned the unenviable position of public-relations director for the regime.

After the old woman moved on, Tommy’s mother smiled apologetically in our direction and then bent down to retrieve a box of oatmeal off the bottom shelf. When she stood up, Tommy reared back and clocked her right in the kisser. This was no playful tap, either. It sounded like someone had smacked a chicken cutlet with a spatula. “Chocula!” the kid screamed. “I want Chocula, stupid!”

My mouth dropped open. Surely this full-grown woman would not stand for such treatment. She would rip the tiny prince off his wire throne and beat him with a bag of oranges. She would pull down his pants and paddle his bare hindquarters with a meat tenderizer until he apologized. And then she would light him on fire.

But that’s not what happened. Without a word, Tommy’s mother meekly returned the Quaker-inspired breakfast food to the shelf and selected the creepy vampire candy instead. The despair and resignation in her eyes as she did this resembled that of a concentration camp victim or a woman who had been trapped for months in a serial killer’s basement. Clearly, this woman had been broken. Tommy seemed to understand this, and to complete the humiliation, he smiled and kicked his mother directly in the vagina.

A whole new world opened up for me in that moment. I realized I had been a fool. An ignorant, chicken-chasing fool! All this time I had been living in the past instead of embracing the future. Hard work and self-reliance were no longer part of the American Dream. These days it was all about gluttony and emotional manipulation. When you wanted something, all you had to do was point at it and scream until it became yours. If that didn’t work, one shouldn’t be afraid to throw a punch every now and then to remind the parental units who was in charge. This was oedipal warfare at its finest.

From that point on, I decided my days of being a pioneer were over. Sleeping late, watching television, eating junk food—this was the true birthright of my generation, and I was ready to collect. As far as I was concerned, Davey Crockett could keep his stupid coon-skin hat; I wanted an Atari.

If it were actually possible to kill someone with kindness, my mother would be the deadliest military weapon on the planet. She could wipe out the whole of Eastern Europe with a polite smile. A few heartfelt thank you’s would sink Australia. Compared to my mother, Gandhi was just a skinny a-hole wrapped in a bed sheet. Mother Teresa was a poser. I have rarely heard her utter an uncharitable word about anyone. Once, after reading an article about a serial killer who had murdered half a dozen prostitutes in the Chicago area and then had sex with their lifeless remains, my mother put down the newspaper and said, “Well, he sure does have a nice smile.”

I knew my mother loved me because she said so constantly. In fact, as I grew older, her affectionate demonstrations were becoming something of an embarrassment. Sure, it was acceptable to administer a casual peck on the cheek before bedtime to help bolster my courage against the various closet monsters, but it was not okay to lick one’s finger and then attempt to remove some imaginary smudge from my face while friends snickered nearby. The woman had no boundaries.

In the past, I’d considered my mother’s love a source of shame to be endured, but now I saw her devotion for what it really was. A bargaining chip. Her children’s happiness was my mother’s primary concern in life, and I planned to exploit those maternal instincts for all they were worth.

The fact that she was under a lot of stress worked in my favor. Living off the grid was taking its toll on my mother, who by this time was looking after four young children and operating a small petting zoo, all with limited resources. While my father had been adamant about our frontier lifestyle in the beginning, like me he grew tired of the tedious work that went along with it. More and more, he began to focus his energy on bringing salvation to the masses, an activity he enjoyed because it allowed him to escape the confines of our house. If he wasn’t at church delivering sermons on the Apocalypse, he was driving up and down the numerous dirt roads surrounding Fort Morgan, reminding the local citizens they were going to hell. Many advised him to do the same. Eventually, these heavenly road trips took him further away, to neighboring cities and counties, where he brought the good news to far off lands, such as Sterling, Holyoke, and Laramie. He returned late at night, tired, grumpy, uninterested in household maintenance or monetary problems.

Meanwhile, my mother was trying to hold our small, gridless estate together. A farmer’s daughter from rural Minnesota, she was no stranger to hard work, but this was more than she could handle by herself. The garden provided a few salads in the summer and chicken eggs made for nice breakfast omelets, but it was not nearly enough to feed a family of six. On top of that, there were a variety of unplanned expenses that kept popping up. My father’s income was sufficient to keep us afloat, but it was not enough to cover emergencies. And there were always emergencies. Car engines stopped running and kid noses started. Mechanic and hospital bills piled up. The bank kindly bounced a few rubber checks for us, but despite all that elasticity, the money never stretched quite far enough.

I wasn’t much help. After the encounter at the grocery store, I became increasingly lazy and difficult to deal with. Whenever my mother asked me to perform even the simplest of chores, I would groan and roll my eyes as though she had requested one of my kidneys. Every task became a burden and the person who asked me to do it an oppressor. My attitude rubbed off on my well-behaved siblings, and soon I was the leader of a small, whiny insurrection. Together we protested our indentured servitude with furrowed brows and pouting lips, a guerilla army of Che Guevara Jrs who refused to take out the trash.

For the most part, my mother endured this behavior with infuriating grace, patiently smiling whenever I misbehaved, reminding me that I was a good boy at heart, even though I had become rotten, like a jar of mayonnaise that had been left in the sun to spoil. I observed her reactions and decided my initial conclusion had been correct: my mother’s love was an ocean. Its depths were infinite. If I happened to miss a wave of affection every now and then, it was no big deal. I just had to wait around for a few minutes, and another would come crashing at my feet. The way I saw it, my mother owed me a great debt. If I had never been born, she would simply be a crazy woman who darned socks and occasionally deboned chickens. My endless demands for time and attention gave her existence meaning. The least she could do in return was to buy me things and cater to my every whim. After all, I was her son. And she was my meal ticket.

Several months passed before I returned to the grocery store alone with my mother. At the time, we were on a mission to purchase cake ingredients for my sister’s upcoming birthday, and my mother was in a rush because she also needed to visit the bank and the post office before they closed. I decided it was time to have my mother’s love appraised and find out exactly what it was worth. If things went well, I would be setting myself up for life. All I had to do was lay a little groundwork, and my future would be filled with the bounty produced by my parents’ desperate attempts to buy my affection. The toy box would overflow with the fruits of my whimpering. Candy would appear every time I stuck out my bottom lip. On my 16th birthday, there would be a new sports car in the garage, and two years later I would drive it to an Ivy League campus, where, after a few guilt-inducing sighs, my parents would write a check for the tuition. Sure, they might have to take out a mortgage or two, but wasn’t my happiness worth a little soul-crushing debt? I thought so.

Therefore, with a lifetime supply of M&M’s and a Harvard education in mind, I followed my mother through the grocery store, waiting for the opportunity to ambush her. The occasion presented itself when she stopped to ask a woman in a red smock where she could find the birthday candles. The employee was in her mid 30s, plump and matronly, with thick glasses and the type of short, no-nonsense haircut commonly worn by women whose grooming habits have been streamlined by a houseful of children. I figured having an additional parent around would only help my case, as it would cause my mother to feel as though she was being judged by a jury of her peers.

The woman was stacking reading material in a tall, wire display case. At the top of the display, there was a comic book called Richie Rich, an illustrated story of a wealthy blonde boy who lived with a butler and, for some inexplicable reason, always wore a red bowtie with blue athletic shorts. Like Archie and Casper, I considered Richie Rich a juvenile comic that was beneath my literary standards, but that wasn’t the point. It was the principle that mattered here. I needed to dig my foxhole and dig it deep.

I pointed to the comic book and said, with the most entitled voice I could muster, “I want that!”

My mother glanced down at me and patted my head. “Not now,” she said. “I’m in a hurry.”

This infuriated me. How dare she dismiss my desires with such flippancy. Who did this woman think she was? I grabbed a handful of her shirt and yanked. “But I waaaant it!” I said. “I want it now! Right now!

The look that came over my mother’s face was not the defeated, submissive expression that I’d hoped for. In fact, I had only seen this particular horrified grimace on one other occasion, during a Fourth of July barbeque, when she accidentally stepped in fresh dog shit while walking across a neighbor’s lawn. “That is just disgusting,” she’d said as she scraped the foul-smelling excrement off the bottom of her shoe with a pencil.

There were no pencils in sight this time, but the look my mother gave me insinuated that I, too, needed a good scraping. She bent down close to my ear and said quietly, “I said no. That is the end of this discussion. If you don’t like it, you can wait in the car.”

She stood up and apologized to the woman in the smock. “I’m sorry. He’s going through a phase.”

The woman waved her hand dismissively, as though shooing a fly. “I have five of them at home,” she said. “Believe me, I know how it is. They’re always going through a phase.”

The two women laughed, and my face burned. What was going on? They were supposed to fuss over me and attempt to gain my favor. What had happened to maternal instincts?

Sensing this was a pivotal moment in our relationship, I decided to call my mother’s bluff. Wait in the car, my butt. She was just showing off in front of her new friend, but I’d show her. I’d show the both of them.

With a long howl that could be heard all the way in the produce aisle, I turned and kicked the display case with my foot. I’d meant to topple the thing in dramatic fashion, but given that my foot was about the size of a Milano cookie, all I did was jiggle it a bit. “I want it! I want it! I want it!”

My mother rolled her eyes and excused herself.

“No problem,” said the woman in the smock. “You take care of business, honey.”

My mother is five-feet tall and weighs 95 pounds soaking wet, but she’s not exactly what you’d call a fragile woman. When she flung me over her shoulder like a bag of cat food, I was so surprised, I forgot to scream. We were through the automatic glass doors before I got out a good wail, and by then it was too late. She opened the car door, sat on the passenger’s seat, and placed me facedown across her lap.

“But you love me!” I bawled.

“Yes, that is true,” my mother said. And then she proceeded to spank me in the Safeway parking lot in front of the entire world.

It was only three swats, distributed lightly and without anger, and the tears that followed were formed from embarrassment, not pain.

“I don’t know what has gotten into you lately,” my mother said. “But I am very disappointed in your behavior. This is not the well-mannered little boy that I know. I hope you clean up your act soon, but if you don’t, I can do this as long as it takes.” Then she kissed me gently on the forehead and closed the car door.

After she was gone, I rubbed my skull vigorously to remove all traces of her kiss. The nerve of that woman, administering affection after nearly beating me to death. She would pay for what she’d done. I wasn’t ready to admit that I’d been in the wrong, and so I ignored the scene I had made in the store and focused on my punishment. I sprawled out on the backseat and placed my right hand on my forehead, palm-side up, pretending I was dying from heat exhaustion, even though it was a mild day and my mother had cracked the window before she left. When I shriveled up like a raisin, she’d be sorry. Then she would understand why a mother was supposed to give her child anything he asked for.

I remained dead until my mother returned with a bag of groceries. She placed the bag on the passenger’s seat and told me to buckle up. I did, but only after sulking first. My mother sighed and removed a Richie Rich comic book from the grocery bag. “You can read it after you’ve finished doing all your chores,” she said. “And not a moment sooner.”

I crossed my arms over my chest and stuck out my bottom lip. “That’s not even the right one,” I said. My mother rolled her eyes and drove us home.

I am Stupid and so are You

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

August 2008

Recently, it occurred to me that I don’t really know anything. Not that I don’t really know anything about the mating habits of the hairy-nosed wombats of Australia or that I don’t really know anything about neutering housecats; I don’t really know anything about anything. It’s not that I’m necessarily stupid (duh) or that I’m misinformed (double duh); I just don’t retain any factual information. For instance, I can talk about the cultural significance of Little House on the Prairie and Hot Pockets for hours on end, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about how a microwave works. (I assume there is a gaggle of tiny dragons inside that funny box that gently breathe fire on my chicken noodle soup when I push the magic buttons.) I can deconstruct and manipulate the semantic/philosophical world around me like a motherfucker, but I don’t know a damn thing about how that world operates.

And there is really no excuse for my ignorance. Interestingly enough, I am living in a sea of information. At no point in human history has there been more data on more topics in a more accessible format than at this very moment. I have books, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods, my next door neighbor who constantly feels the need to tell me about all her personal health problems (stop showing me your bunions, Rita!)…

Two hundred years ago if I wanted to know when the upcoming vernal equinox was going to happen, I would have to get on my donkey, ride down to my local alchemist, and watch as he examines a closet filled with astronomical equipment. Two months later, I would have an answer. Right now, all I have to do is type the funny little words in Google and three seconds later… Voila! (The next vernal equinox occurs on March 20, 2009, at approximately 11:44 a.m., in case you’re wondering.)

Ironically, the ready accessibility of such raw facts seems to be one of the main impediments to my ability to obtain and retain knowledge. The volume of information that’s available to me is overwhelming, and since I can access the data at any time, I don’t feel the need to learn it.

Is this a problem? Yes and no. No, it’s not a problem, because this is how our entire society is set up. Everyone in America operates within this system (and, actually, you could probably argue that everyone in the world operates within this system, although I’d have to look that up on Wikipedia). In fact, this is an essential part of our cultural make-up. Since we can’t all be Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking, we must rely on others to be “experts” in a particular field. Our normal lives have become so complicated that we can’t possibly understand even the most simplistic daily operations that we perform. Instead of learning how a carburetor works, we simply take our SUV to the nearest mechanic. If a raccoon falls in the toilet, we just call the plumber and the veterinarian.

On the other hand, yes, this is a huge problem. American society has become a giant, corporate entity and every employee is stuck in their own specialized department. Theoretically, this makes everything more efficient, but in the reality, it means that we are raising a generation of intellectual lemmings. Since we don’t know how anything actually works, we rely completely on other people to define the world around us. This is probably why the public is always so paranoid about the media feeding it biased information. Since we don’t do any research on our own, it seems like a conspiracy when something like 9/11 happens. What? People hate us in the Middle East? Why wasn’t I informed? It must have been a media cover up.

The concept of American individualism started to die as soon as Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. Everyone performs a small, specific operation in order to manufacture a product. At the end of the day, the factory workers don’t actually know how to change a tire; however, through their collective efforts, they have built a car. That’s how we manufacture ignorance in a capitalistic society.

What’s the answer to this dilemma? I would tell you to start educating yourself, create a cranial dam to hold back the flood of intellectual apathy, fight the system. But then again, what the hell do I know?

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