The Wealth of Laughter

If there is one thing I will miss when my days are done, it is laughter. The kind of laughter you shared with close friends where your eyes would water and you couldn’t control your own breathing. A joyous pain in your “diaphragm-in-spasm”.

"To Laugh Again" by Bob Salo (2009)

“To Laugh Again” by Bob Salo (2009)

I remember when I was in high school we would prank call people until the advent of caller ID shut our sorry asses down; we’d tell people they had packages at the post office or that we were calling to see if they were interested in writing for a local religious publication. We’d also throw rocks at corrugated metal buildings because the sound was somehow hilarious to us. I even remember we once went out in the middle of the night and took plastic kid cars and tricycles (left abandoned by their owners in their respective yards) and parked them all like regular cars in their rightful spaces on the Main Street of our small Midwestern town. The town cop was not impressed, but we howled like raucous hyenas as we covertly watched him collect the miniature child transports and put them in the back of his police truck.

Those days seem so long ago, and yet the memory is like gilded crown molding on the ceiling of my soul. I wish I still laughed that hard and that much, but as with all things in life, repeated experience has a way of stripping out the vibrant colors. I still manage to get them once in a while, but they just seem fewer and further between.

You always hear “you can’t take it with you” when people talk about money, and that’s true – the physical shit in this life (including your body) isn’t going into the Great Beyond. But I really hope – if there is any kindness in the Universe – that we get to take our memories of laughter with us. I’d smuggle them out of the cave like gemstones if I knew how, but something tells me that is going to require some hardcore shoplifting talent.

Because if there is a Creator, he or she ain’t no damn mall cop.

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An Elegant Monster

If you voraciously devoured the second season of Netflix’s web series House of Cards this past weekend, you were not alone. This writer also binged on the newly delivered loot.

I almost watched the entire 13 episodes without stopping – but my stomach requested nutrition and I figured I should probably shower. I actually felt a little like a crackhead, or at least what I imagine one feels like – bypassing normal behaviors to submit my will to this unfolding, fictitious character study. I won’t give anything away, but the season was definitely worth the wait. It delivered high voltage shocks in its political backstabbing, sexual side turns, and naked power grabs.

Of all this show’s twisted personalities, my favorite character is the devious Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). She plays the wife of Kevin Spacey (as VP Frank Underwood). A methodical machine, she carefully manipulates (often better than her own husband) her preferred outcomes in challenging situations. When her enemies fall, she doesn’t even give a smile of satisfaction; she coldly moves on to the next target with eyes like steel knives. No unethical tactic is beneath her, yet her subtle grace and calm voice give you the impression she is the most trust-worthy and caring individual you’d ever meet. A vintage sociopath. Now that I know what levels of power she has attained, I can not wait to see what she does to her opponents in the next season.

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Although this is just a TV show, it could be considered strange to cheer on a psychotic. However, villains are usually the more fascinating individuals in a story. I feel like you always want to know, “What broke them?” Or “What made their emotions turn to stone?” How did their obsession with an audacious goal become their fundamental purpose in life? And how will it ultimately be their undoing (as it usually is)?

Claire, your magnificent malice brought you to the top. I can’t wait to see how it brings you down.

This is going to be one for the Ages.

The Fine Line Between Friendship & Cannibalism

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of dining with a friend of mine who I had not seen for a hot minute. As we sat enjoying some overly-priced tomato soup, our conversation turned to our respective plans for 2014: overseas trips, personal projects, and potential moves. Somewhere during the chat, we touched on our the duration of our friendship and how it has survived the test of time – largely in part due to our shared love of dark humor and a celebration of human wickedness that is more a parody of human failings than a serious love of evil.

During this segment of the conversation I offered to my friend a hypothetical gift I would grant to few others. “If we ever get trapped in an avalanche on a mountain together – and I die first – you have permission to eat my body if you need to survive.” However, I added a warning to this culinary invitation by telling him, “It will probably taste like disappointment and anger, just so you know.”

He offered a quick retort, “No worries, I have a recipe for a wonderful brown sugar scrub that would do wonders to balance your flavor.”

Somewhere in this macabre and disturbing exchange was an undeniable, universal truth: Only your closest friends possess the recipe to minimize your flaws and compliment your sourness.

"Saturno Devorando a su Hijo" by Francisco de Goya (1823)

“Saturno Devorando a su Hijo” by Francisco de Goya (1823)

A Selfish Skin

The Christmas holiday has passed, but it has left me in a contemplative mood.

I was fortunate this year to have several invitations. Since I live so far from my immediate family, I often spend the holidays with close friends in the area. These are always enjoyable affairs, and I don’t think I am alone in saying a Christmas spent with friends (rather than family) can often involve less emotional baggage and mental scarring. I do, however, recognize that there is an ancient power inherent in family bonds that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

"Pie Fight" by Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, 2011.

“Pie Fight” by Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, 2011.

This year, I spent Christmas Eve with a couple who are very dear friends of mine, and Christmas afternoon with a co-worker with whom I share a love for poetry, history, and off-beat relationship wisdom. Both events were wonderful and my hosts provided me with a delightful combination of sustenance and memories. However, I left both feeling somewhat sad and disappointed in myself. Although it may have been but a footnote in the program, I completely failed to bring a gift to any of my entertainers. They all opened their beautiful homes to me. They fed me and filled my brain with enlightening conversation, and all of them had set a side a present for me. The thought did cross my mind earlier in the week that these generous folk might get me something to open – being it’s Christmas and all – so perhaps I should be prepared with something to give them? Well, apparently in my old age, I discarded that thoughtful notion and when the moment came, I was receiving objects of their kindness – but had nothing to give in return.

None of my hosts seemed bothered by it, but I was bothered.

I was bothered very much.

“I didn’t use to be this way,” I said to myself on the drive home. I used to be that very intuitive person who could go out and find a gift that was perfectly reflective of its recipient. I used to have an excellent memory for details about my friends. I would inventory comments they made about music or fashion all year long and when the time came for a birthday or wedding, I would unleash the fruits of my intuition to an amazed friend. And more importantly, I felt great joy in those moments. What happened to that guy? I actually did a full-on dissection of my decision-making process. It was like a mechanic pulling apart an engine to find out why all the pistons aren’t working. Although it is no excuse, I think I found the explanation: More and more, I am becoming a selfish-thinker.

There is a certain side effect to being single for a very long time, at least in my case. I am used to only caring for myself. Getting groceries for myself. Doing everything in my life with me as the primary focus. I am sure there are lots of people who live alone who are still thoughtful people who think of others first, but apparently I am not one of them. The co-worker who hosted me lives alone and is in my same predicament as myself, but he had the fore-thought to make me a beautiful CD of Christmas music and put my picture on the cover. A gesture of kindness that crushed me when I had nothing to offer in return. Certainly many people expect nothing for their good deeds, but I am not always someone who (when conscious of it) accepts things greedily and does not reciprocate. Had my long spells of loneliness baked me into a crust? Have the scabs of my life-hardening experiences grown like a second skin over my intuition? Good lord, I hope not.

I once read in the Talmud of the concept called “bread of shame”. Mind you, I am not Jewish or a religious person by any stretch, but the text was quite profound to me. The “bread of shame” is basically accepting gratuity when you have not earned it. These friends of mine could very well say, “These are gifts. This is our generosity to you, and you do not owe us anything.” But I would still feel as though I did not earn any special gifts. Maybe I was Jewish in a former life? Who knows.

It’s possible I made this more of a deal than I should have. However, I fear growing such a selfish skin; a thick alligator hide that will eventually relegate me to the swamps of humanity.

The Inability to Quantify Love

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“Love” by Nikolai Bashkirev (2006)

At the age of 39, I find myself in a quandary: After years of dating and assembling personal relationships only to have them collapse like a house of cards, I decided to try to quantify what makes people “fall in love.” As you can imagine, it’s virtually impossible to determine a definitive answer. So after surveying the wreckage of my past attempts, I tried to glean from the remaining particles what forms the axis of a potentially solid foundation. In much discussion with friends, I often feel ping-ponged between opposing view points. They often contradict each other in advice and approach, but somewhere between the refractory points of view, I settled on the following factors:

1. Humor: There must be laughter. If no laughter, then what will sustain you both when you’re in wheel chairs with leaky colostomy bags? You better have some jokes for glue. Several friends say that only one person in the relationship need supply the laughs and that as long as the other person is entertained, the circuit is complete. Since I’m a moody bastard, I feel like I need both ends. Sometimes I like being the magician, and sometimes I like being the audience. I am not sure if it is reasonable to assume you can be both. I do know that a good laugh dismantles emotional walls, it coaxes smiles out of the fox hole, and it disarms the nuclear trigger of a raging temper.

2. Intelligence: Not IQ-driven, but a certain level of intellectual compatibility. Everyone’s mind is a satellite adrift in the Nothing, but when transmissions fall upon familiar frequencies a reciprocity is created. I’ve always believed that two people need not work for NASA to communicate effectively with each other. But a similar level of idea exchange turns consonants and vowels into construction material. Can’t cross that violent river? No problem, we’ve got sentences stronger than the thickest bridge cable.

3. Self-Responsibility: I think a lot of people drive their relationships without this one. I find that being with people who are not very responsible is ultimately detrimental to both parties. I’ve also been weary of those who would not provide an equal contribution to the partnership, and I’m not necessarily talking about money. These are the cleptoparasites who will feed on your emotional well-being. I’ve often found that people with a good work ethic, the ones who will do a good job – even if the job itself is not particularly prestigious or profitable – are sterling examples of this cardinal attribute. It may not always carry over to other parts of their life, but it is often a divining rod to a quality person. In my experience, it denotes a person unfettered by obstacles who is willing to work on something, rather than give up at the first sign of trouble.

4. Decent Hygiene: I know this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people come up short in this department. No one has to be OCD, or carry anti-bacterial wipes in their wallet, but a modicum of cleanliness is like having a home with good manners. I’ve certainly let my apartment go to hell during a busy week at work, and I get behind on laundry just like everyone else, but there comes a point when even I cannot stand it. I once read a book on playing chess that said, “An ordered system loses less energy.” Well, in my book an ordered house, projects good energy. I think of all these points, this could probably be the one I bend on if the other factors were strong enough. After all, I would be willing to have a pet in the house (if I really wanted one). I just can’t kiss one that smokes.

5. A Physical Connection: Ah, the great differentiator. My mind has a habit of drilling down to the essence of what makes something stand out. I was raised to believe that you seek out someone in life to be with as an extension of the family you are already born into. Of course, in my teenage mind, the physical obligations of a marriage seemed contradictory to that line of thinking – so you add this person to your family except you have sex with them? Seems weird and metaphorically incestuous. However, I think a sexual relationship is quite important (at least for myself) if you’re going to be bound to the Earthly plane for 70+ years. Judging from my more liberated friends, sexual attraction is relatively easy to find and I think that’s probably true. Surface quality is the fastest thing to identify, especially with the Internet’s one billion profile pictures. Unfortunately, many are false advertising for the empty containers they merely decorate.

Despite the accumulations of this list, I still can’t help but think I am missing something. That unknown factor. I am hesitant to call it “supernatural” or “extrasensory,” but I do know that I’ve met people who satisfy all of these criteria and still my mountain within is not moved. The heart is a fickle invention and it excels at cryptography.

Damn you, human heart.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

When I was in high school, I saw a film recommended by my older sister. It was called Point of No Return and it starred Bridget Fonda as a street junkie who commits a random murder and is sentenced to death by lethal injection. The authorities fake her execution and the U.S. government secretly rehabilitates her. She is then trained to be a deadly assassin taking out diplomats and other pre-selected targets. It was based on a French film called, La Femme Nikita.

MSDPOOF EC049What I remember most about this movie is not the constant killing or disposal of bodies in bath tubs of acid, but a single line quoted in the first act: An elegant but sinister Anne Bancroft is tasked with teaching students at the assassin school how to function with manners and grace, especially since they will need to attend embassy dinners with upper crust politicians and arms dealers before they blow their heads off. In her first scene with Bridget Fonda’s character, she says:

“Do you know what ‘nature’s first green is gold’ means?”

She goes on to explain that the line means “that the first is best, that youth is better than old age.”

I don’t know why that line found residence in my high school brain. I am sure most of us feel like fragments of movie dialogue and song lyrics become stuck in our psyches like flies to fly paper. It must have had a lot of resonance for me to remember it this long though.

Being struck by the sentence, I eventually found the source – which was a poem by Robert Frost called “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. It’s actually quite famous in poetry circles, and when I read it, I recalled a conversation I once had with a friend somewhat older than me. I was telling him that as I aged, it was getting harder to find things that felt like “brand new” experiences. He basically gave me the less flowery version of Frost’s eight lines of rhyme: “Well duh, you only fall in love for the first time ONCE, you only attend high school ONCE, you only travel to Europe for the first time ONCE. That’s life, buddy. You can always try to repeat things, but nothing will ever feel like the first time again.”

It was a depressing (but refreshing) reality check. It made me think, “Hmmm…I wonder if there is life beyond death or other lives we’ve had, and we simply chose to forget them as to experience the new all over again?”

I miss the new.

The Gravity of the Truth Ninja

I saw the film Gravity last weekend and I have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Even though I have seen more profound (and far better) films in my life, I do get the hype with this one. We live in disconnecting times and despite our level of technological advancement, we are still plagued by the specters of death, adversity and loneliness. I know, I am probably not telling you anything you do not know already, but I think a good metaphor can often reflect an emotion better than just describing it verbatim. Without spoiling the film for anyone, I will just say that there is a scene where a character breaks down the basic choice you have when faced with death. It was so simple and unpretentiously that it snuck up on me like quiet brilliance.

Truth is such a ninja sometimes.

gravity-poster

The Corporate Nanny State

Just the other morning in the office break room, I was overly tired and pouring myself a cup of “complimentary coffee”. A co-worker of mine swept in with some unnatural morning sunshine and made the comment, “Kick-starting your work ethic?”

“I guess,” I offered ambivalently.

She looked a little puzzled and said, “I thought you were really happy in your new position?” To this, I responded, “I absolutely love what I do, but I do not love WHEN I have to do it. I am not a morning person – whatsoever.” She seemed to shrug off my qualitative statement and just had to throw in the sarcastic “one explanation fits all” judgment: “There’s always something wrong, isn’t there?”

"Insomnia Sleeper" by John Jude Palencar

“Insomnia Sleeper” by John Jude Palencar

Normally, I would channel my rage into a cutting remark but I was so defeated by my lack of sleep I didn’t have the energy. However, the longer I absorbed that interaction in my mind, the angrier I became…and the more I inspected the thought of whether or not she may be right. After some careful deliberation, I determined that not physically feeling well due to lack of sleep is a very legitimate reason to not be happy. Aside from possibly winning the lottery or being proposed to by a decent partner, I can’t think of many things that would lift my spirits enough to change the fact that my bones feel like old iron pots and my skin hurts.

My mind made a leap-frog to an even bigger issue: Why the hell do people who have good work ethics and do their jobs well have to be at a prescribed building between certain hours of the day at all? Especially if they aren’t dealing with outside clients? And even if they are and 90% of the communication takes place by email, why can’t this be done from home? Heck, we even have cell phones that could handle the other 10%. Why are 30+ year old adults treated like toddlers in this day and age? I posed that question to another friend of mine who owns a blossoming business and he said, “Well, unless it is like a retail position, I imagine it is just because most employers don’t trust their workers enough to work from home or to work flexible hours. They think those people will fudge the system or take advantage of them, and honestly, a lot of them do when given the chance.”

Ok, fine. I admit some people may deserve the corporate shackle, but I’ve always been of the impression that if you give people a project and an allotment of time to do it, they either perform well or they don’t. And if they don’t, you get rid of them. I mean, if people weren’t actually working and projects were not getting done, someone is going to notice, right? Maybe I don’t know enough about the business end of it but it sure seems like allowing an employee some flexibility would mean a happier employee.

And after all, don’t you want someone who loves their job to do it when they feel their best? Seems like a logical way to improve your business, but I guess we’ll just keep doing things the way they’ve done them for hundreds of years because it’s too dangerous to think what might be actually good for the person could actually be good for your business.

A Better Definition of Having It Better

I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine who has children. She was telling me how her family had fallen on hard times and she was very upset about not being able to “give her kids the things she never had.” I’ve heard this statement a lot from many people over the years, and while I understand the sentiment and where it comes from, I can’t help but think it’s an ideal that warrants refinement. I say this not from a place of judgement but from one of observation.

For full disclosure, I have no kids of my own (nor am I ever likely to) so I do question my place to dispense any advice on the best way to raise human podlings. However, since I was once a child (and a totally bratty one at that) it’s my personal philosophy that a good parent is an anchor and the kid is the sailboat: An anchor is heavy, but not completely immobile. It keeps the sailboat from being swept away by whimsical currents that could lead it to destruction, but it also knows when to rise from the seabed and allow the craft to travel when an appropriate direction is selected. I always thought if I was a dad, I might be a little strict with my kids; the “Great Denier” who would withhold impulse purchases at the check-out or disavow frivolous procedures like throwing a new toy in the path of a crying toddler – the types of tactics so many parents use to quell their offspring.

Of course, I say that but the practical application would be more like the following mental negotiation with myself: “For just 5 minutes of peace and quiet, I don’t mind buying a $20 action figure or video game.” I am guessing this is how the thought process goes for most parents. girlwithbirds

Anyway, back to my original point for writing this piece: My friend seemed to convey a disappointment in herself that she wouldn’t have the quick means to manufacture a happy mood in her children by giving them a material thing. I can only assume this approach had worked as a preventative measure for a very long time. I told her, “You know, my parents weren’t dirt poor but we weren’t rich either and from my own experiences I think what most kids want is just some kind of social engagement. They want something that inspires their imagination. They want to interact with you. I don’t think you need to have the means to buy lots of new things to give them that.” She seemed to tacitly agree but was dwelling on the upcoming storm of expectation she had already constructed – and would now have to dismantle. She seemed to fall back on that old adage “I just want my kids to have it better than I did.”

And that’s when the shit got real. I told her, “When people say things like that, I really hope they mean they want their children to have a better education, a better work ethic, a healthier body and mind. Because as far as I am concerned, more toys, more designer clothes, and more time to play video games didn’t do a damn thing for me growing up. I can’t use any of it now.”

And with the silence I got from that kind of response, I remembered my place. I remembered that I don’t have kids.

So of course, I couldn’t possibly understand.

How Television Became My Psychological Window

I grew up like many in my generation: worshipping the TV set. My Saturday morning communion with the almighty 14-channel Zenith consisted of a bowl of Fruit Loops and 4 solid hours of cartoons. It is almost embarrassing to admit that now, but those publicly-broadcasted waves shaped my youthful spirit and fed my childhood imagination. Then, I grew up and went to college where I became “too good” for TV and decided that cinema was where real ideas were happening. Sure, I still indulged in weekly episodes of Seinfeld, and I would catch the occasional cultural moment – like Ellen DeGeneres coming out in 1997 on her eponymous show – but I was pretty much wandering in the Sahara of no TV until the latter part of the previous decade.

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Through a wonderful ex-boyfriend, I became hooked on Breaking Bad, a twisted AMC series following the transformation of a man from high school science teacher to drug overlord. It is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. Multi-layered storytelling with complex characters that I would hate one minute and then fall in love with in subsequent episodes. However, the most interesting thing to me about the show was the subtle education I was receiving on human nature. Prior to the show, I had always had a hard time understanding why anyone would use or sell drugs, but the more I watched it, the more I understood. Now, I am not saying it instilled a desire to do either of those things, but it did make me understand the human intent behind self-destructive actions, probably more so than my college psychology classes. More importantly, as my feelings about the characters changed periodically, I realized that even when certain people do terrible things, you can sometimes see that they are not inherently evil people but rather very desperate people.

hocnetflixThis education continued when I got hooked on two recent Netflix series: House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. The former is a superb example of how people manipulate each other for the purposes of satisfying their own selfish desires. I watched the entire series in 2 days (however, I am also a political junkie). I think it’s probably an overly dramatic view of how Washington D.C. functions, but it’s definitely a mesmerizing pool of darkness.

oisnbOrange Is the New Black is a bit more light-hearted, but has a serious subtext as it approaches the various points of view in a women’s prison. My favorite thing about this one is similar to my reasons for loving Breaking Bad…when you learn the stories of the prisoners and how they came to be there, you may understand the motivations of why people perform certain crimes and whether or not they truly receive appropriate justice for their deeds. Aside from the heavier themes, the show pulls of a great balancing act of humor and humanity. I’m definitely waiting impatiently for the next season.

My hat is off to you TV, you have come back from the wasteland of reality programming.