Friday, June 29, 2007

Oh, the Pain ... The Pain of it All!

As any of you that read my gibberish know by now, I like to fancy myself a bit of a creative soul.

I can draw ... some. And I can write ... a little. I'm not a giant in any field, naturally, but I feel that I have some creativity to offer the world and I think I tell a good story. When I can actually get someone to read what I've written, I get nothing but rave reviews.

Now, it's entirely possible that those are just polite indulgences. Most people aren't going to rudely tell you what they actually think of your stuff unless they're close to you. (I don't know, sometimes they're the ones that blow sunshine the worst.) But, even when I ask relative strangers to read and give me their thoughts, they end up telling me the things they read that I've written or drawings I've made are "good."

I don't know exactly what "good" means. Not evil, I suppose. Not bad? I don't know.

Anyway, that brings me to my point. There are certain websites where EVERYone thinks their stuff is good. Whether it is or not, they believe it is. I've written things that don't get very much public exposure. Very few people read it. But I've never written anything, and published it for public viewing, unless I was satisfied with the product. I proofread it, I ask for another set of eyes to read it (my wife's -- very good eyes indeed), and I make sure that when I finally put it out there for the world to see, it's ready for that scrutiny.

Now, to be fair, I'm a bit anal. Most people, especially on sites like the ones of which I'm speaking, are just having fun and don't necessarily obsess for perfection like I do. But, when you publish something to a massive site with millions of submissions, I've got to believe you want someone to read it. And if that's true, why wouldn't you take the time to make sure it's legible? That it flows? That there's a story to read, and the language to read it? It seems that proper punctuation and spelling are beyond most people. Typos? Of course, we all make them. I have plenty of them in my posts, I'm sure. But between the two sets of eyes, we usually find them (even if not immediately) and fix them, and that's only AFTER the piece has undergone a spelling and grammar check through my friendly neighborhood word processing program. Take your pick, they ALL have them -- even Microsoft Works. And yes, it is sufficient to catch most of them.

Instead, the sites are flooded with badly written, poorly structured and horribly misspelled "literature" (if you can call it that). In addition, the topics don't seem to change very much. It's like most of the stuff out there is written by angst-ridden teens or kids that define themselves as "emo" (I didn't even know that word existed, never mind what it meant, until I looked it up on the 'Net after seeing the Mac commercial where the PC has to go download it), is all written from that whole razors-and-mascara perspective, and just generally isn't any good.

Then, they can't figure out why no one will read their writings. It's pathetic.

Enter dorky me. I have no clue what goes on on these sites, so I happily enter and start hanging my drawings up for folks to see. I don't draw anime, and I don't animate my art. I'm only average at best, and never claimed to be anything other than that. So, I didn't get too offended when I didn't get many page views on my art. The few people that did stop by were intelligent, thoughtful and easy to talk to, and they offered me some great insight.

But then I started writing. I rather fancy myself a writer of sorts. I'm a better writer than I am an artist, and that's likely because I work at it a bit more. I decided, some time ago, that I wanted to change my style of writing a bit and start posting stories from my childhood. I had a stable of some pretty amusing stories to share, and I wanted to get them out there and see if I could emulate the style of writing of Chris Kimball. He's the editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine, and the host of the PBS show America's Test Kitchen. He's a brilliant writer though, and his writing captures a feel and a tone from a time forgotten -- a time when kids wore denim and Keds and plaid short-sleeved shirts with crew cuts, or pig tails and eyelet dresses, and they played games like stickball and kick the can, and had clubs and rode their bikes to buy trading cards.

Get it?

So, I tried to inject some of that into my writing. I felt I was pretty successful at it, too, and so I posted some of those stories on an artists site so that others who write (supposedly -- NOT suppose-of-ly) could see it and maybe offer me some direction to make the work stronger.


When I stop and think about how deeply buried in CRAP the good stuff gets (anyone's, not just mine -- there are other good writers out there), it's no wonder no one reads the literature on the site.

I got to thinking, then, that maybe sex sells. I notice that if you publish naked photos, or draw sleazy, sexy comic women, your page got loads of page hits. So I thought I'd try and experiment to see if would work for me, too.

I started an anonymous account with a pseudonym, and I wrote some erotica. What do you think happened?

Absolutely nothing, that's what.

So, no matter what I try, if I'm not writing homosexual stories of existing anime or manga characters, or "furries" (whatever the fuck THAT is), no one's interested. I mean, the erotica got more initial interest, but the same thing happens. It gets buried under a lot of garbage cranked out by horny teens who think that characters with fur, tails and unpronounceable Japanese names are "literature". And after it does, no one reads it anymore, because it would require effort to find it and cipher through the tripe to get to the gems out there.

It's really disappointing.

I don't mean to be disparaging of someone else's work; I know we all feel our creativity deserves a view by the world, and even emo teens feel they have something to say. All I ask is that you make it worth reading for the REST of us.

Anyway ... I'm finished ranting. If you like good writing, you can read my fiction on this site and others around the 'Net. If you don't like my writing, that's fine, but don't tell me it's because I'm not any good at it or that the story isn't well-structured or constructed. It's because you don't like the material or the subject or the style, but not because it isn't well written. Sounds arrogant, doesn't it? <Chuckle!>

What about any of you Internet readers? Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions? Opinions?

Shout out and be heard -- even if only by one madman.


Friday, June 22, 2007

Bill vs. the Putter

Bill, I think, was the best athlete I've ever met. There just wasn't anything he couldn't do in most sports.

Bowling, baseball, soccer, football, track and field ... you name it, he probably did it, and did it well. So it didn't surprise me that he was good at miniature golf too.

Most of us don't think of miniature golf as a sport, and we're right -- it's just a fun family activity. But when you're as gifted physically as Bill is, nothing is very difficult, including dropping a little ball into an Astroturf-embedded cup. He'd get a semi-serious look on his face, look at the ball, line it up with that goofy little guide on the club head, and he always seemed to give it just the right amount of power to send the ball around its loopy, convoluted trip to the hole. He didn't get a hole in one every shot, but he almost never scored par, either. Always below -- always.

I can't tell you the number of times he'd stand behind me, giving me instructions, talking me through trying to sink that confounded ball. I got better, eventually -- but I never had the smoothness and the ease of doing it that he carried.

That stifling, sweaty northern California day, my mother -- not yet drunk -- decided we would all go miniature golfing. My father, of course, was working. My brother, Bill and I were all excited for the change of scenes and the chance to do something fun. It would mean a trip over the steep, car-killing grade of Kirker Pass into Concord, then up Clayton Boulevard to the miniature golf course just beside the A&W drive-in. Naturally it was our plan to connive her into getting us burgers and floats for lunch, too.

It was a weekday, but a fair number of people crowded the tiny golf course with its protruding spires of Disney-esque castles, a windmill with a slowly rotating 4-tine fan, a teeny stream running under gnomish bridges of false stone and gurgling into bubbling pools beside the fake grass. The little structures were more fun to me than the actual game, and we'd climb over the obstacles and peer inside the windows of the little cottages and shop fronts, only to be disappointed to see garbage and construction debris littering the hollow guts of them all.

The course became more challenging as it progressed. The initial holes were simple curves and bumps in the Astroturf that nearly guided your ball into the hole with no effort on your part. I, of course, was nerdy enough to screw a few of them up. After about the sixth hole, though, things changed dramatically.

The holes became very, very hard. Ryan actually had to be scored just for trying; at five years old, he had no hope of conquering some of the difficult challenges the course began to present. It was becoming clear why even high school students were attracted to this miniature golf course -- it was not easy.

But Bill was under par on every hole.

We came upon a monstrous gorilla perched on a plant-choked hill, beating his chest and issuing a tinny roar from the speaker at the back of his mouth. The goal was to go up the hill and under the gorilla, into one of three holes. The center hole would drop you safely into the hole for a hole-in-one. The other two were more unpredictable.

My brother's first shot didn't climb the hill. He tried about four times before he finally gave up and just dropped his ball -- close to the hole, naturally -- on the other side. My mother's shot ricocheted wildly off the concrete curbs up the winding ramp, but slipped under the ape's plaster rump and ended up about three feet from the hole. My shot cleanly climbed the ramp, but annoyingly bounced into one of the outside holes and ended up about six feet away from the hole. Being a sore loser, I was pissed.

Bill's shot went effortlessly up the ramp and never even touched the sides of the center hole under the primate's ass as it slipped past, and was dropped perfectly with a hollow "clunk!" into the cup at the middle of the green.

I just chuckled and shook my head.

The next hole was a majestic pink castle -- if a pink castle can be majestic -- sitting in the middle of what I imagine was the tiny moat surrounding it. The "moat" was actually a channel about two feet deep with jets rushing the water about. There were leaves and other stuff floating in the water, and you could see them get scooted along quickly by the rushing water. There was a long, suspended bridge, with NO rails to keep the ball from spilling into that dirty rushing water, that spanned from the edge of the moat through the middle of the castle. Inside that castle, a series of tubes would carry the ball through the structure of the pink palace and dump your ball according to where you'd hit it. In the middle, hole-in-one; left or right, no one knew.

My mother's first shot nearly went off the bridge. She cried "Noooooo!!" and twisted her body, trying to somehow control the ball as it barely edged across the bridge and dropped into the far left hole at the castle's "gate." She exhaled loudly through her flapping lips and moved aside. Ryan's shot went directly in the drink, do not pass go, do not collect the ball. We actually had to go ask for another one. My first shot went right, and ended up on the green about three feet from the hole.

But Bill's shot went straight and true, dead-on center, and dropped easily in for a hole-in-one.

I just chuckled and shook my head. "Man!" I exclaimed. "How'd you DO that??"

He thought for a moment, and shrugged. "I dunno. I just ... look at where I want the ball to go, point the line at that spot, and hit it." He shrugged again.

"You should think about turning pro," my mother said stupidly.

The next hole was an anthill type thing, where you have to hit the ball up a mound with a depression in the top where the hole was; there was only one way to do it right. Miss it, and the ball rolled down the hill and you'd have to get it up that hill somehow, and around all the plaster toadstools and crap strewn over and around the ramp. My shot went in on the first try. Ryan hit his too hard. My mother hit hers too soft.

But Bill's shot went straight up and into that cup effortlessly.

The next hole was a weird one. It looked like we'd come to a driving range. There was a huge -- and I mean huge -- ramp, with a net over it that extended some 20 or 30 feet into the air. The whole thing was maybe five yards wide. There were dozens of holes for the ball to fall into. It was a monstrosity, and it took us a minute to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do.

"I get it," Bill piped up. "We have to hit the ball up the ramp. If you get to the top of the ramp, there's a little gutter-thing that drops the ball into the hole. If you don't get it to the top, you'll hit one of these other holes and you'll get on the green."

"Ohhh," we all said together, nodding slowly with the understanding.

Ryan teed up his ball, whacked it, and it rolled weakly off to one side and down into the gullet of a hole that spat him about 10 feet from the hole on the "green". My shot was similar, but not quite as pathetic. My mother's ball found a similar fate.

But Bill's shot went straight and true, up the ramp -- and died about two thirds of the way up.

It rolled straight back down and he stopped it with the bottom of his sneaker.

"What the hell?" he said, confused. I always thought he was a bad-ass when he swore, and my mother never corrected him. He was too bad to be corrected, I assumed.

"What happened?" she said blankly, even though she'd seen what'd happened.

"It didn't make it up," Bill said. "Not even close."

His face grew a bit more determined, set in that concentrating way he had. He set his shoulders, gauged his shot, and hit it again, harder.

His shot went perfectly straight, right up the ramp ... and died about two-thirds of the way to the top again. It rolled limply back down and he stopped it with his foot.

"Dammit!" he cursed. "This is tickin' me off now."

He adjusted his stance, lined up his shot, set his shoulders and hit the ball again. Once more it went dead-on target, but only climbed about two-thirds of that steep L-curved ramp. He stopped the ball again with his foot when it sped down to him.

"Sonuva ... what's the frickin' problem??" he stormed, getting steamed now. He wasn't used to being frustrated like this.

"I guess you gotta hit harder," I said, concerned with his growing anger.

"I did hit it harder," he said. "The bastard won't go up the ramp. Is there something up there stopping it?"

I placed my hand over my bottle-bottom glasses to shade out the powerful California sun, peering to the top of the ramp. "I can't see anything," I said.

He focused too, staring at the top of the ramp. "Yeah, me either," he agreed. "It's just Astroturf."

"I guess you're just not hitting it hard enough," my mother added again. "Just give it a little more whack, that's all."

Bill shrugged. "What the hell. I'm already going over par even if I get a hole-in-one now. Might as well."

"But make sure you can tag it good, though," I said. "Lots harder than before. I think the ramp is steeper at the top than down here."

"Yeah," Bill said, "don't worry. I'll tag it."

He settled in his stance, just as a pro golfer would, watching the position of his feet and the guide on the club. He carefully set his shoulders, then took a look up the ramp and gauged his putter's guideline. He took a couple of half-swings to ensure the club head ended up where he wanted it. Then he settled in again.

"Okay," he whispered to himself, "this is goin' up."

I expected Bill, with his magnificent body control and athleticism, to be able to apply an infinitely adjustable range of power to his hits. He probably could, but he'd lost interest in that. He was determined to get this ball in the hole now, and to do so by using that little channel at the top of the ramp. He would not be content to use the other holes in the field.

So he tipped that little club back like a driver, arced his swing down and ripped the hell out of that ball like Tiger Woods at the Masters. His swing followed through all the way, and his little colored golf ball launched off the tee area mat and shot up the ramp like it was blown out of a cannon.

We watched agape with shock as the ball roared as fast as our eyes could follow up that ramp, cleared the top, and took off into open air. It soared with no sign of slowing down as it cleared the top of the net designed to catch the ball in just such a case. Up into the air the tiny ball receded, and I put my hand over my eyes again to try and watch the trajectory as it whistled away into the crisp cerulean sky.

My mother cupped her hand over her mouth. "Oh my God!"

"FOOOOORRRRRRRE!!" she bellowed ... and she can bellow.

Humanity buzzed out of nowhere. People boiled out from behind that ramp like hornets from a burning nest, hands held over their heads, running low and trying to avoid whatever catastrophe was falling on them. Girls screamed, men ran with fear, and all the while I watched that ball finish it's parabola and begin to fall back toward terra firma.

"Here it comes!" I shouted, "LOOK OUT!"

We all four darted for cover as the screaming ball whizzed out of the air. It crashed soundly into the top of the ramp, hopped up another 20 feet, came down and bounced again, and then struck the net behind the ramp. The net killed all of the ball's momentum instantly, and it rolled helplessly down the ramp.

And it dropped gently into the channel at the top of the ramp. Bill's ball rolled down the channel and was deposited nicely into the hole.

We all stood there staring, amazed.

In a moment, Bill spoke again, clearing his throat.

"So ... was that four strokes or five?"


Saturday, June 09, 2007

Bill vs. the Popcorn

You should've seen the look on his face. It was priceless.

That summer was especially fun for me. Bill was there visiting, as usual, but he was a bit older, a little wiser, more ... I don't know. Worldly, I guess. He was just somehow cooler.

And I knew that meant that, by the time he went home, I'd be cooler too.

Bill had that indescribable ability within his person to bring you to his level. He was a born leader. He could get you to do things you didn't think you could do, try things you wouldn't normally try. He made me believe in myself by believing in me. He knew more about what I could do as a person than I did, and he had that part of his nature that called that out, egged it on and made you a better person in the end for it.

I knew when he left I'd be more than I was when he got there. I was always, secretly, looking forward to it.

That summer was coming of age in independence. It was the summer that I learned to do things for myself without the input or assistance of a parent.

That night was a shade different. We became more or less nocturnal when summer rolled through. There wasn't any reason to get up early and get going. School was out. With no routine, we fell into that kid pattern of uselessness and wiling time away with meaningless preoccupations we called “fun”. Or we'd bitch about being bored. Whatever.

The difference was, my parents were gone. They didn't have much of a social life, but every time Bill came around, they managed to find things to do and places to go. It might have been shopping at the large mall over the hill from our town, a half-hour trip by any route. Or it may have been going out to dinner, something that was a lot easier without kids in tow. Wherever it was, they were out relatively late that night, and it'd been a long time since we'd eaten anything.

That was the trigger for a lot of events. Bill was a growing boy, with his hormones ramping up to carry him through his teen years. Being more active and athletic than we were anyway, he ate more. A lot more. And whenever he was around, we ate with him. He seemed to always be hungry, and there was nothing different about this night than any other.

It had to be around 11 o'clock. The windows were pitch black and reflecting like mirrors. The soft blue glow of the TV was the only light in the family room, which butted against the dining nook. The nook was separated from the kitchen by the peninsula counter overhung with cabinets, and both were floored with that tract home linoleum so prevalent in the 70s. We dressed in our sweat pants and t-shirts, the sleepwear uniform Bill brought to us and that we wore religiously. The sleeping bags were unfurled in the living room, ready for that wee hour when we finally ran out of things to do and went to bed.

I couldn't have been more than 11 at the time, but I think I was more like 10. Bill was a year a month and a day older than me. I don't remember if this was the same summer as the toilet war, but it may have been. All I do remember is that Bill got hungry, and he decided to find something to eat.

He padded away to the kitchen and I followed. That was me – always following him. He opened the floor-to-ceiling pantry and stuck his nose in, moving things around looking for that snack that would scratch the itch in his belly. He fished around for a minute, moving some cans, the bowl of sugar stored there, a couple of boxed food items, then whirled around to me with something in his hand.

I was under another section of the counter, rummaging through boxes of cereal. “Want some Lucky Charms?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said definitively. “How 'bout this?”

I looked up and saw the jar of popcorn he held in his hand.

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “I don't know how to work the popcorn popper.” Working the corn popper wasn't brain surgery, but I'd never been shown or allowed to work it, so I had no idea how. It was one of those domed affairs with a hot plate element at the base. You'd add a touch of oil and put a pat of butter in the top section of the lid so that as the inside of the dome got hot with the popping corn, the butter would melt and run down through holes to coat the pop corn. It was an electric one, and my brother and I hadn't been allowed to use it.

Until Bill got there, and then it didn't matter anymore.

“We don't need a popper,” he announced confidently. “I know how to make popcorn.”

“You do? With no popper?” I asked, eyes wide with amazement.

He chuckled. “Duh. We don't even have one at my house. It's easier in a pot.”

“A pot?”

“Yeah. Do you have one? I'll show you how.”

I was in awe as I dug through the cupboards where the cookware was. “What kind of pot?”

“Well,” he said thoughtfully, taking on his teacher's voice, “it should be one with a lid. Just a regular one, you know, like for spaghetti or somethin'.”

I, of course, only had my mother's cooking as the experience to draw from, so I pulled out an old silver pot and its lid. It was a stock pot I know now; I had no idea what it was then. What he wanted was a sauce pan, but he didn't know what to call it. Even if he had, I wouldn't have known what it was.

“How's this one?” I said, looking at him expectantly. “Is this too big? Mom uses this one for spaghetti, I think.”

He narrowed his eyes and knit his brows, considering the offering. “No,” he said with great finality. “It's perfect. I'm starving, and that'll let us make more. Good thinkin'!”

I smiled. I hadn't thought about it at all. I just grabbed a pot.

“Okay,” he said, moving back to instruction mode, “now we need some oil.”


“Yeah, you know ... cooking oil. Vegetable oil or somethin' like that.”

“Oh!” I pointed to the pantry. “It's in there.”

He turned and went back to the pantry, and after a second or two of rooting around, he produced a bottle of Wesson. “Awright,” he said, “got it.”

He moved to the stove without shutting the pantry and put the stock pot on the biggest forward burner. “So, whatcha do is, you put some oil in the pot.”

Uncapping the glass bottle, he poured a tiny stream of the golden fluid into the bottom of the pot. He eased up after a moment, waiting for the viscous fluid to spread over the stained aluminum surface. When it didn't completely coat, he poured in another stream. Still unsatisfied, he poured in a bit more.

“Okay,” he said finally, “that's enough. That'll make a bunch.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to take note of each step. “Now what?”

“Now we turn on the stove,” he said authoritatively. “The oil's gotta be hot. So, we throw a couple o' popcorn things in it and when they pop, we add the rest.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Okay.”

He tried to open the jar of dried corn and found it firmly sealed. He grit his teeth and wrenched harder on the lid, but his knuckles turned white and the lid didn't budge.

“Damn,” he swore, and I got a giddy little thrill. I always did when he swore. It was “bad” -- which of course was “cool”.

“Get me a towel, willya?” he said. “I got oil on my hands and can't open the jar.”

I pulled a kitchen towel out of a drawer and handed it to him. He wrapped it around the jar's lid and torqued on it with all his might, his face turning radish red with effort. Still the lid wouldn't give.

“Damn!” he said through gritted teeth. “Still can't get it!”

“Let's hit it with a knife!” I injected happily. “I saw my grandma do it. You knock the lid with the knife until it gets loose.”

“Awright,” he said, and he started opening drawers looking for silverware. I opened the one that had it for him and pointed to the butter knife array.

“So I just hit the lid with the knife?” he said, dubious.

“No, no,” I said, “you hit the lid with the back o' the knife thing, but hit it the way it has to go.”

“Oh, like this?” he said, and he soundly smacked the lid with the knife, leaving a tiny divot on the edge of the metal lid.

“Yeah,” I said, “only don't wake up Ryan or he's gonna want some.”

He clipped the edge of the jar again, and again, and again. One last swing and the jar popped open, the lid skittering across the slick linoleum and spinning on edge to drop in front of the pantry.

“There!” he said. “Got it!” He beamed proudly and approached the open pot.

“Okay,” I said, “what do we do now?”

“Once those pop we pour in the rest,” he said. We both stared into the pot, watching tiny boiling bubbles start to cradle the floating kernels in the oil. They shook and danced in the hot fluid, and at long last, the first one burst open in a fluffy white cloud, jumping up high toward us.

We both started hard and stepped back, looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Awright,” he said, “now we pour in more.”

“How do you know how much?” I said, watching as he carefully poured out kernels into the pot.

“You just guess,” he shrugged. “It's not that important.”

The kernels bounced and slid over the bottom of the pot. He had a flat, even layer in it, and he screwed up his face in doubt.

“Is that enough?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said, pouring again. “I'm gonna eat a LOT. How 'bout you?”

“I can probably eat a lot, too,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, tipping the jar over again. He inspected the contents once more, then poured a third time. The kernels stood over the oil now, the bottom of the big vessel hidden under the mound of brown little pods.

“There,” he announced. “that should do it. We can always make more if we want.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, smiling. “Now what?”

“We just wait. In a couple o' minutes, they'll start popping. Then we get to shake the pot and make sure they're all popped.” He took a last look then dropped the lid in place on the pot.

He started out of the kitchen, and I followed blindly, trusting fully he knew what he was doing. We headed back to the family room and dropped in front of the TV on the couch to watch the rest of Wonder Woman. Lynda Carter held our attention rapt until a hollow, metallic ring caught Bill's attention.

“It's popping,” he said, getting up. “I'll go shake it.”

“Okay,” I said, still ogling Lynda.

I watched for a moment or two, waiting for Bill.

POP! POP POP! POPOPOP! POP! The kernels burst in rapid succession, and I heard the sound of the aluminum scraping over the electric stove element as Bill shook the pot to settle more kernels into the hot oil.


More shaking.


The sound was getting loud. I couldn't hear the television anymore, and the sound of the shaking pot grew more aggressive, then became constant.


The shaking of the pot went from constant to frantic, and quickly deteriorated to desperate.


“JD, get a bowl! JDGETABOWL!!” The cry was more pleading than commanding, and I turned and looked over the top of the couch into the kitchen.

The lid to the stock pot slowly was rising on a column of fluffy, oil-coated popcorn, and those light morsels started spilling over the sides of the pot onto the stovetop like a rockslide. Bill was frantically slamming cabinets, looking for a serving bowl, but he kept trying to shake the pot, forcing more of the kernels to spill and scatter over the stove and onto the floor. Popcorn was flying out of the pot now, the lid sliding off and to the side, clattering like a cymbal onto the counter.

JDHELPHELPGETABOWL!!” Bill cried, oily puffs of popcorn fog rolling over his hands, down the front of the stove, across the smooth floor, over the counter.

I jumped over the back of the couch and raced to help my friend, but as I skirted around him to get into the galley kitchen I nudged him into the pot and it spilled a mother-lode of popcorn everywhere. Each tiny kernel was caked over with oil, and the linoleum was getting coated with it. White rain fell like water out of a fountain, coming faster and faster. I tore open the cabinet with the serving bowls and pulled out my mother's ancient green Tupperware bowl, the one she always used for potato and macaroni salad and popcorn. Bill snatched it from my hands and I saw his cheeks, puffed like a squirrel's, packed with popcorn, eyes wide as dinner plates and panic stamped comically over the top of it all. He swept the counter with his arm, trying to push the multiplying popcorn into the bowl, but the pot behind him kept swelling and overflowing with endless mountains of creeping, swarming, slippery kernels of invading snack food.

“Get another one!” he muffled through his full mouth. “Eat it! Eat it!!”

I tried to shove popcorn in my mouth, but it was like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon. With my cheeks packed and stretched, I dropped onto my hands and knees and grabbed fistfuls of the food and tossed it into the bowl. It was filling up fast, and the avalanche of popcorn kept coming from the pot, kernels leaping down on us to bury us beneath their weight.

I tried to stand, but the oil on the linoleum made the slick floor hazardous and I slipped. I reached my hand up into the open pantry and tried to grab the shelf, but my desperate fingers wrapped about the rim of the sugar bowl and it snowed down over me, the popcorn, the oily floor and splashed out in a graceful fan over a three-foot area.

The cacophony of popping kernels gradually began to die, and the avalanche began to subside. Bill was still shoving popcorn in his mouth, and putting more in the overflowing bowl, as I crawled over the mounds of white to reach the serving bowls again. I pulled another out, and another, and Bill was throwing popcorn into it furiously, sliding and slapping his hands down through the piles to find the floor. He still had his cheeks puffed out with food when he stopped.

“Whaffatmell?” he said through the mouthful of popcorn.

“Huh?” I said. “Hey, what's that smell??”

We both looked up to see smoke rising out of the stock pot in a white, thickening column.

Bill gasped loudly and leaped to shut off the stove, but his oil-slicked hands passed uselessly over the knobs on the range and his face smacked solidly against the oven door, ringing it like a Chinese gong. He cursed through his mouthful of mashed popcorn, and pushed the pot off the element with his bare hand.

He instantly grabbed his wrist in agony and tipped his head back, a guttural cry smothered under the mush in his mouth. I watched wide-eyed and helpless for a moment, but managed to reach and extinguish the stove.

And just then, the door leading into the garage opened. Mom and Dad were home.


Friday, June 01, 2007

Bill vs. the Toilet

We were hard sleeping on the floor of the sunken living room, the torture session having gone long into the night.

The subject of that session, of course, was my brother Ryan. That's what older brothers and their best friends do -- they torment younger siblings over summer vacation. There are tons of reasons, but in this case it was just plain fun to do. No one could scream like Ryan, and no one could go to complete hysteria from pure frustration faster. His wails of anger and helpless fury only egged us on, and we loved it.

"We," of course, was the tandem of me and my best friend Bill. Bill is a year, a month and a day older than I am. That meant he was 11 and I was 10, or thereabouts. Every summer, we'd spend as many weeks together as we could get permission for. Most of the time, it was two weeks, but as he got older, that changed.

I lived in a suburb about an hour away from Bill. It was a journey that seemed even longer when we were going down to my grandmother's house, in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, Land of Perpetual Fog. Bill lived directly across the street from my grandmother, so every time I went there, we got together and had a ball. And, once a year when school was out, Bill would come and visit us for a couple of weeks and we'd have even more fun.

This particular year, my brother was an especially difficult pest to control. He wasn't as malleable as he'd been when he was younger. He was five then, and already well on his way to becoming the manipulative, lying jack-ass he is today. He already had a weight problem, and was probably psychologically scarred by my mother's constant alcoholic-fueled abuse mixed with overly protective tendencies and over-indulgence. He'd been hit by a truck when he was two and was riding a Big Wheel. Mom felt she should've stopped him from going to a friend's house so young. She compensated, when she wasn't drunk, by being overly mothering to Ryan. Hell, she even stopped my father from disciplining him ... not that stopping my father from doing something was any great challenge.

Those years were the height of my mother's alcoholism. We were beaten on a fairly regular basis, and when we weren't being beaten, we were being told how we'd never amount to anything, or maybe being pulled aside so our mother could tell us she was going to commit suicide later that day, or maybe we were just asked to hit our father over the head with a heavy object so he'd get off of her after she physically attacked him and he had to sit on her and pin her arms down. These were pretty regular occurrences in our house.

They were far, far reduced, and far less severe, when Bill came to visit. The appearances had to be kept up as much as possible. That was part of the reason we loved having him so much. He was my friend, I know, and I would have loved him like a brother even if he WEREN'T our only rescue. But the fact that he was made him all the more dear to us. Bill was the only one that wasn't afraid to say "no" to my mother, or to argue with her in our defense. And, when he had to, he stood in solidarity with us and took his lumps just like we did. To this day, he's a hero to me.

Bill is athletic and well-muscled, and always has been. He was a strong kid, and he always treated us like siblings. I looked up to him then, and over time, he functioned as more of a father figure than my own father. He was strong, masculine and secure in himself -- something we didn't see much from our own father. Even at 11, Bill was a football player and played soccer too. Later, in high school, he was a track and field standout along with everything else he did. The only thing he wasn't good at was academics. He'd lead you to believe he was a dummy, but that's not the case at all. He just didn't do well in school. He's now a shrewd, if not retired business man, with a house in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and set for life with investments and real estate. There's nothing dumb about Bill, and there never was.

He loved my parents and thought the world of them. They, in turn, felt the same about him. So, it was great for all of us to have him around. They never objected to him being there, and they never realized that our motives were as much selfish as caring for the company of a friend. So he visited most every summer, and this particular summer, Ryan was a terror.

Ryan, for his part, had learned that certain possessions were prized by older kids. For us, it was small, grocery-store toys. Often, my mother took us to the grocery store where we'd find an aisle of toys. We were particularly drawn to the rubber animals and insects and things of that nature. On one trip, Bill picked out a rubber skeleton wearing zombie rags and dangling from a gold elastic band. I probably picked out the same thing -- monkey-see type of thing. I wanted to be as cool as Bill, after all. My brother Ryan, being younger, would have followed suit. But his toy would have been destroyed or lost or both a couple of days later. So to avenge our torment of him, Ryan would target our stuff. The cunning warrior attacks neither the body nor the mind, but the heart.

We were at least a few days into Bill's visit by then. It wouldn't have taken long for Ryan to get on our nerves. We lived in a relatively new neighborhood, in a new house with a sunken living room and three bedrooms, a galley kitchen and a formal dining room. The house had a long central hallway that had the living areas at one end and the bedrooms and bathrooms at the other. The main bath was right at the end of that hallway, and the formal living room where we were sleeping was near the opposite end. Ryan and I shared a room, for reasons that I don't to this day understand, and there was a guest room. Bill never slept in the guest room though. He always slept in the living room in a sleeping bag so we could be away from Ryan and do "guy stuff." It was the coolest thing ever.

We slept the sound sleep of children. In those days, the mid-seventies, it was okay for you to leave kids alone in the house. You taught them not to burn it down, and how to contact police, and you did your best not to do it often or for very long. But for jaunts to the store and such, it was no problem. Somewhere in the dimness of the morning that Saturday, my parents had gone out and left Bill and me to watch over Ryan. Without letting us know.

Ryan was an early riser. He got up well before we did; we'd stayed up late playing and talking and trying not to wake my parents. At some point during the night, we'd get something to eat. It was a tradition, a ritual we went through every visit. The goal was to do it without alerting anyone. We were exhausted and near comatose come morning, though. So Ryan had that time, awake and alone, to plot his vengeance.

The sound of a toilet flushing won't wake you up when you're a kid. The sound of a child screaming will.


I told you, Bill was athletic. He was up and out of his sleeping bag in a single feline motion, and bolting toward the end of the hall before I could wriggle out of my sleeping bag. By the time I reached the hallway, Bill was darting through the bathroom door.

He hit the door with his shoulder as he turned the knob and it flew open. Bill took a single step into the bathroom in his stocking feet, and both his legs shot from beneath him. His legs shot over his head and he splashed down in what looked like an inch of water standing over the vinyl flooring. Ryan was laughing maniacally and standing on the edge of the tub directly across from the toilet, safely out of that water.

Toilet water. Not fresh.

I got to the bathroom just as Bill was putting together what happened in his head. His eyes bulged in horrified helplessness at me, his mouth contorted into a twisted grimace of disgust.

"AAHHH, JEEEEZZZ-UZZZ!!" he bellowed. Water continued to flow out of the toilet across the floor, threatening the hallway carpet and having already swallowed the knitted wool area rug my mother had in the bathroom. Bill's long hair was floating in the cesspool under him and he couldn't stand without getting even more drenched with the septic fluid. He stretched his hand toward me, eyes pleading, and I took it. I pulled with all the strength in my puny body, desperately trying not to step into the puddle of waste water, and he slowly rose up out of the quagmire. Bits of toilet paper and assorted flotsam were floating all around us.

He tip-toed with his arms extended to his sides and legs akimbo to the other side of the sopping area rug and grabbed the end. "Grab it!" he called. "Throw it in the tub!"

Impossibly the water kept coming. How long did a stupid toilet run anyway? Over the lip of the bowl it slid, relentlessly pouring onto the impervious surface and scatter ever-closer to the hallway carpet.

"How do we turn it off??" I wailed, fear and panic erupting in peals of hysterical laughter.

"I don't know!" Bill yelled. "Just grab the rug and get it in the tub!"

I had no choice ... I plunged in, my socks immediately soaked through as I went. I grabbed the rug and it nearly gave me a hernia as we hefted with all our might. The woven fabric soaked in what felt like gallons of water and seemed to weigh hundreds of pounds. We grunted with exertion and the heavy rug flopped sodden into the bathtub. Water quickly rushed in to replace it, and as we watched, we realized what we'd done.

The rug was the only thing soaking water up.

"Towels!!" Bill shouted, trying to take charge and handle the situation. "Get towels! Where are your parents??" he whined.

I danced the please-God-don't-let-me-slip dance to the linen closet just outside the bathroom door, and pulled out what my mother called the "old" towels. They were ragged, faded and worn, but they mercifully soaked up the cesspool as I threw them over the floor, reticent to re-enter the lagoon.

Bill's back was to me when I looked at him again, and I saw his entire height from head to heel was plastered with the hideous liquid of death. His mouth was turned into a disgusted frown, just as anyone working in a sewer against his will would wear, when he turned back to me.

"How do we stop the water??" he asked, trying to understand why the toilet didn't shut off by itself. That tiny Niagara continued pouring out of the bowl at a steady, alarming pace.

"Where are Mom and Dad??" I demanded of Ryan, who was now in the hallway barefoot.

"They went to the store!" he whined. "They said they'd be right back!"

More water spilled forward, the hissing of the running water in the tank working against our nerves like ... well, like Chinese water torture.

"What do we do??" Bill said, not sure of himself against the plumbing.

"Open the toilet thing," I said, "maybe we can find out how to turn it off!"

Bill hefted the tank lid off and stared into the tank. "Oh my God," he whispered. "I can't believe this!"

"What?" I said. "What is it??"

He reached inside and pulled out a wrist band. The terry cloth-covered elastic bands used to wipe sweat from the brow during physical exertion. It was, at the time, fashionable to wear them around. This one, however, was especially stylish because it had a red stripe, a white stripe and a blue stripe. It was patriotic and stuff. It was EXTRA cool.

Oh, and it was Bill's.

It had wedged between the stopper inside the tank and the opening so that the water was continually running. The flood stopped once he pulled it free and the rubber plug inside the tank fell back into place. A few seconds later the bowl spill slowed, then stopped.

"That little bastard," he muttered in stunned disbelief. It always struck me as very "bad" -- which meant "cool" -- when Bill swore ... and he swore a lot. "He threw my sweatband in here. You little bastard!" he roared, turning to Ryan. Who was already gone.

"Bill, my parents ... we have to clean this up somehow ..." I whined.

"Crap! Help me!" he said, and he started gathering wet, heavy, slogging towels from the floor, still cursing Ryan as he worked.

He started to rush down the hall, back toward the garage where the laundry machines were. As he turned the corner from the hall and started toward the service door, it opened, and there stood my parents. Ryan was clinging to my mother's leg.

It took some time, but the adults cleaned the mess up. While the sweatband explained the constantly running toilet, why the water didn't go harmlessly into the city sewer system was a mystery. That is, until my father took the toilet out of the bathroom to clear the S-trap.

Deep in those mysterious caverns of porcelain, he found a rubber skeleton, dressed in zombie rags, trailing a gold elastic band from its head. It was covered in feces and used toilet paper, smelled like an outhouse, and it had to be thrown away once it was recovered from its watery grave.

Oh, and it was Bill's.


Bathroom Contemplation

I dragged hard on my smoke like it was saving my life instead of taking it, listening to the crackling death throes of the paper and tobacco as they were swallowed alive by the advancing flames on the fast-shrinking cancer stick. I sat on the toilet seat, leaning against the vanity to my left the way a sack of sawdust propped against the dusty planks of a barn leans -- heavy, dead weight. I was staring into the distance right in front of my nose and unaware of my surroundings. The last couple of days haven't been pleasant for me, I pondered, and I realized I was tired.

I felt funny for a while; I wasn't really sure how long. It might've started when I got back from Puerto Rico, but maybe not. A slight post-nasal-drip kind of feeling. As of Wednesday night, I wasn't feeling well, and I was afraid that I might be well on my way to another bout of cold or flu symptoms. By Thursday morning I had a full-on runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Allergies, I told myself, nothing more. The antihistamine I'd popped Wednesday night helped me sleep if nothing else, but I didn't feel any better or worse in the morning. I was grateful for that.

Being sick for the fourth time since the calendar rolled to 2007 excites me about as much as Amish porn. Amish porn, that's funny. I borrowed that one from a Sports Illustrated writer. I forget who now.

I dragged that cigarette hard enough to make it beg for mercy again and continued staring at those yellow, nicotine-crusted walls. Gotta wash 'em soon, I reprimanded myself.

The drive home had been hell. For me, it was literally hell. Hot, choked with humidity and smog, traffic moving like molasses in winter. I sat through the usual bout of congestion on the road trying to get home, but then I made a few disastrous decisions that left me deeper and deeper in the soup the farther along I went. First, I cut off of my usual side-road route and figured sticking to the main road would be faster. After about a 10 minute wait to get through the juncture of IL Rts. 43 and 176, I continued north behind a glut of cars all doing exactly 5 miles an hour UNDER the 35 mph speed limit. When I finally broke free from that mess, I moved north much faster, and came to the junction of routes 137 and 43.

Usually I take 137 west and head north again on another side road. But the line of traffic to turn left on 137 probably would have left me sitting at that intersection through 2 cycles of the light. I opted to continue north on 43.

I got less than a mile farther before traffic stopped.

43 is notorious for not being able to handle the traffic. Abbott Laboratories is surrounded, at their main campus, by a nice, 3-lane wide stretch, but at the next intersection north, it bottlenecks down to two lanes again. I creeped and crawled forward, inchworming along, tempted to turn around against oncoming traffic, but knowing better. I opted, for some stupid reason I can't explain to this day, not to turn around when I had the chance. I assumed, more stupidly, that the authorities would have the problem cleared soon and I'd be happily on my way.

I sat there for another 45 minutes before going far enough ahead to see the problem: a stalled construction truck, partially blocking the right lane. The cop that was standing around picking his nose and ass, looking stupid and arrogant, was blocking the rest of it. So the two lanes were compressed to one at the height of rush hour.

It took me an hour and twenty minutes to make a drive that normally, in traffic, takes 40 or 45 minutes.

I was so wound up by the time I got home I was spitting venom, blood chemistry jacked through the roof, and wanting more than anything in life itself to hit something, hard. My poor, stout-hearted wife stood and listened to me bitch, only uttering sympathies, while I shook with frustration and pent fury.

I tell myself I don't have road rage because I don't slam my car into anyone, I don't pull out a crow bar and bash anyone's vehicle or head, I don't whip out a 9mm weapon and send someone to their Maker. All I do is get wound up a bit and vent through my considerable mouth. I yell, scream, and occasionally, I bang things -- steering wheel, bed, couch -- whatever's handy. But I don't have road rage. The road enrages me, but I don't have road rage.

That's not really true. The road has nothing to do with it; it's the morons ON the road that piss me off.

I sucked on that cigarette, drinking the life out of it as a spider drains a fly. The filter flashed suddenly and burned the holy shit out of my lips and fingers where I held it. I cursed loudly through clenched teeth and ran the hot fiberglass under cold water, then dropped it into the dirty, ash-crusted salad dressing jar serving as a butt-kit.

Bad day. Bad couple of days if you count the cold, hay-fever, whatever the hell it is.

I stood up to leave the bathroom, dropping the toilet lid down. Toilet does double-duty. We smoke in the bathroom to keep the smoke out of the kids' faces. That makes for cruddy, yellow walls and no place to sit in an apartment-sized bathroom, so the toilet is a place to drop your ass no matter the reason you're there. Problem is, the lid is convex, so you can't put a caboose as big as mine on it or it'll crack. So we sit there on the pot whether we're using it or not. I was staring at the water just before the lid closed and I swear to God the toilet winked it's hole-eye at me.

Bad day. Real bad.

So I lifted that lid and sat back down, leaning against the vanity just to my left the way a sack of sawdust propped against the dusty planks of a barn leans -- heavy, dead weight. I ripped another victim from the pack of Ultra-Lights and sparked it, dragging hard and tired on that S.O.B. like it was the last one on earth.