A week or two ago I described how my father made sure nurses and aides checked on my mom frequently. He did it by placing a huge sack of candy in her room, free to anyone who wandered by, somewhat like corn scattered at a deer stand. It worked as if her room had been enchanted by elves.

When I spoke to my mom last night, she told me that the latest bag of chocolate bars had been depleted, and that my father had decided against bringing another giant candy lure. She also reported that almost no one came by the room anymore unless they needed to shove something down her throat, stick something into her arm, or wake her up in the early hours to take her vitals and generally fiddle around with stuff. The courtesy calls have ended.

My friends, bribery works miracles.

 

My wife could be getting a remodeled bathroom with heated tile floors for Christmas. Or she could be getting a cruise down the Danube with a personal chef and her own burly Teutonic masseur. Maybe a puppy that will grow into a huge, destructive dog, or maybe a freezer and a “Tasty Animal of the Month” membership. But my sweetie will not be getting any of those things because the universe is unfair, and it requires me to pay for everything I want to give someone. Therefore, my wife will receive a squatty wooden chair on Christmas morning.

Presents were a big deal in my family, and I guess they still are. We didn’t have much money when I was a kid, but we didn’t care about spending a lot on gifts. We wanted to give a gift that was so perfectly suited to the recipient that he would go into convulsions from pure joy. It was a modest goal. Occasionally we found the perfect gift at a reasonable cost. Usually we couldn’t afford it even if we sold all the grandparents for medical experiments. So we’d buy the most nearly perfect gift we could afford without actually weeping blood from the expense.

I’ve carried this pathology with me into adulthood. My preferred gift shopping strategy is to walk into an interesting store and stride up each aisle. My goal is to shop for some loved ones whose lives I want to make ideal for one shimmering, eternally-remembered moment. So of course I don’t think about any of those people at all. I just absorb the merchandise’s aura in a consumer-zen fashion, and when my intuition smacks me in the forehead about some item I buy it. When I get home I’ll figure out who it’s perfect for. Or as close to perfect as I can afford.

Over the years, that strategy did not drip insanity, no matter how it sounds. I always employed a critical safety measure. I only went into stores that I could afford that year. If my income made it a Woolworths Five and Dime year, I did not walk into Aberdeen’s Custom Jewelry and Furs Worth Going to Hell For. I could set limits. I indulged my neurotic gift giving compulsion and still remained fiscally responsible. The universe made sense, at least through the skewed lens of my childhood.

Then came the internet.

The internet blew away my safety interlocks faster than a reckless starship captain in a David Hasselhoff movie. Suddenly the world was one big store, with nose hair clippers on one aisle and matching Ferraris on the next aisle over. My strategy would lead only to wailing frustration, immediate bankruptcy, or catatonia induced by irreconcilable psychic and moral conflict. In other words, bad strategy.

I turned to my wife for guidance. She has always adopted a more reflective approach than I to gift giving. She follows the, “Give them something nice and move the hell on,” philosophy. She doesn’t give crappy gifts. She doesn’t shop at the gas station for presents. I’ve never received from her a 5 Hour Energy Drink and a Zagnut Bar in a used Arby’s sack for my birthday. She even dares to ask people what they’d like to get as a gift, which I kind of consider to be cheating. If they don’t tell her what they want, then she gives them something modest and charming, and if they don’t like it then it’s their own damned fault for not telling her what they wanted. It all seems like insanity to me, but I don’t see my wife obsessively scratching furrows into the back of her hand because her brother wanted the blue jacket instead of the brown one she gave him.

So under my wife’s tutelage I’ve developed a new strategy. First I ask people what they want. If they want something too lavish, I just ignore whatever they said. Then I count up the rest of the money I can spend and divide it by the remaining gift recipients. Hopefully it comes out to at least seven dollars per person. If not, I decide which family members and friends I want to offend and maybe never speak to again. Then I find something that I can give to everyone, making sure it’s the nicest thing I can buy for seven dollars. I buy the gifts, bestow them as appropriate, and drink some Christmas tequila to smother my sense of having violated some natural law. Simple.    

My wife's current squatty wooden chair, complete with bungee cord structural support

This is how I know that my wife will receive a squatty wooden chair for Christmas. She got me started on my new strategy by flat out telling me what she wants. She wants this chair so she can sit on it while she applies makeup. She had a nice chair for that purpose, but I crushed it when I sat down to talk to her about weather stripping the front door. She coaxed the chair back into cohesion using a bungee cord and some profanity, so she can sit on it for now if she doesn’t mind risking permanent spinal injury whenever she applies blush. So, she wants a chair, I understand why she wants it, and I even feel responsible for her needing it. I will buy her the best squatty wooden chair I can find.

I wonder if they come inlaid with sapphires and ivory from extinct animals?

 

Dear Mr. Thanksgiving Turkey,

Greetings. You don’t know me, but I’m the guy who told Santa Claus to kiss my ass in September. Sadly, when I sent him a Halloween card it came back with the address scratched out, and scrawled in crayon on the envelope was: “North Pole melted. Elves eaten by polar bears. Screw off.” It’s all terribly sad.

I have a proposition, Mr. Turkey. I’m sure you’re aware that Thanksgiving sucks. I hate to be blunt, but why pretend? Your holiday is mainly about football and food, which we’ve already got every Sunday from August to February. You also feature dinner with family members who ruined our childhoods, a parade with giant blow up animals that frankly give people nightmares, and shopping on the day after Thanksgiving to buy presents for a far superior holiday, rendering your holiday forgotten and completely pointless. I’m saying these things with love, but I hope I’ve made my point.

You have an image problem. Compare your “football and food” approach to Halloween’s “eat candy and dress like a Shanghai prostitute” theme. Or compare it to the Christmas motif of “rake in free stuff and pretend you love your fellow man when in fact you parked in the handicapped spot at the liquor store.” Your holiday doesn’t resonate with people. It bores them. Hell, you’re so boring that they eat turkey and then fall asleep. Again, said with love.

We need to repackage you and change your image, Mr. Turkey. You’ve got a hidden strength, which is the word “thanks.” People like it—who doesn’t like to be thanked? But you’re not specific enough with it. You say we’re being thankful for the good things in our lives, and that’s wonderful. But can we sell peanut butter candy in “good things in our lives” shapes? No—specificity is what we need.

So, think thankful. What specifically are we all thankful for? Not militant protestant white guys with huge belt buckles on their hats, I’ll tell you that for sure. We are all thankful for—puppies! People adore puppies, and that will be the secret of your success. No more can-shaped cranberry sauce and ugly wreaths with dead leaves. Instead we’ll have sweet, floppy, nap-taking, ball-chasing puppy dogs, and that’s what Thanksgiving will be all about.

Everything will change for you. People won’t sit around stuffing their faces and farting on the couch until halftime. Instead they’ll bring their puppies over to grandma’s house, and everyone will play with the puppies! There’ll be puppy cards, puppy lawn art, puppy-shaped cakes, gifts for your puppy, stories and songs and TV shows and podcasts about puppies. People will not be able to resist—heck, they already go crazy for stuff with puppies on it, and there’s not even a holiday for it yet!

The best part is the lack of waste. After other holidays you’re throwing out pumpkins and trees and leftovers. But nobody but a sick creep throws away a puppy. They keep that puppy, and it grows into a beloved, walking, barking, backyard-littering billboard for your holiday. Christmas cannot begin to aspire to that kind of advertising—who wants a reindeer curled up at their feet as they watch reruns of Will and Grace?

Mr. Turkey, I know that you may feel threatened, since you’ve been the face of Thanksgiving for so long. But we have a place for you. Think what a hit you’ll be in your own commercial with a collar and floppy ears, trying to bark and eat a cow hoof. People will die—it’ll go viral on YouTube the first day!

So please consider my proposition, Mr. Turkey. I think we can accomplish great things together, and the nation will be happier on many levels if we succeed. Your holiday will no longer be the beat-up Yugo of holidays. It will be the Lamborghini of holidays, and you will be racing it down the highway of American culture. With a whole lot of ears and tongues flapping out the windows.
 
Seriously - isn't this better than yams?
 
Reprinted from Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit, available at Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.
 
 
 
 

This morning my boss gave me a vision of my future. I know that’s unlikely considering that my boss is a database administrator rather than a voodoo priestess. Yet it occurred. My boss announced we’d have layoffs today, and I saw myself living in a sewer tunnel and eating Styrofoam, while my cats deserted me for better-employed owners in the good part of town. This was a hell of a thing to face while my first cup of coffee still dripped through the filter.

When my boss announced the layoffs, my senior coworker, Andy, dropped his Dilbert coffee mug and collapsed into his chair. Our assistant, Jill, turned away from my boss and pulled out her iPhone. She was presumably tweeting that she needed a new job, or maybe she was calling on a thousand friends to come besiege the company headquarters on her behalf. All I know is that she turned back to us several seconds later wearing a smirk. After a few heartbeats of stunned terror, I did something constructive. I asked, “All of us? The whole department?”

My boss looked like she was on her way to kill her dog while selling orphans into slavery and kicking her grandma in the head. But she brightened a tad and said, “No, not everyone. Just one of you.”

I squinted sidewise at Andy. Jill faded back until she occupied a strategic spot behind us. Andy said, “That’s just terrible. I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do without one or the other of these guys. They really help me to keep stuff going around here.” Andy shook his head and looked at the floor. I thought he might work up a couple of tears, but after decades of soaking up coffee and overhead projector radiation, I’m sure his tear ducts had atrophied.

I organized my argument for why Andy was the worst thing since smallpox, but my boss spoke first. “I’m sorry Andy.” She looked at Jill and sighed, “You’ll have to get by without your trusty assistant, Jill.”

Andy and I both moaned as if we were on the rack, which I thought was pretty good since we were trying not to laugh like idiots. I looked at Jill, who had cocked her head at my boss. She didn’t show any other sign that she understood she was being tossed out onto the chilly, rat excrement-covered street. She said, “I’m the sharpest one here, and you know it.” In my heart I knew it was true. Jill was young and not jaded by years of futile striving to accomplish something that made sense to real people. In fact, she busted her ass. I saw my boss look down, and I felt uncomfortable. Jill continued, “Plus I’m the cheapest employee you’ve got. Keep me and you get more done for less money. You’ll look like a frickin’ hero.”

My boss chewed her lip and nodded a bit. Then she swiveled her gaze to Andy, who rocked back in his chair as if she’d shot him in the forehead. “Andy, I’m sorry, but Jill’s right. It’s unfair to single her out because she’s young and she’s a woman.” Andy looked confused, because no one had said anything about Jill being young and a woman, and in fact no one cared. But I realized that my boss was already creating a plausible line of bullshit reasoning to justify her actions to her VP. She didn’t look regretful now. She looked like a lioness that’s just spotted a slower gazelle.

Andy didn’t remain slow. He sputtered. “I’ve memorized a whole 20 years worth of totally undocumented code, and I’m the only fellow who knows where to find those mainframe emulators. Without me, you’ll be crippled. And if you fire me, I’ll sue y’all all across Hell and half of Georgia. I make the most money, and I been here the longest, and laying me off ain’t right.” Andy leaned forward, reminding me of Clint Eastwood about to pull his Navy Colt revolver. “I mean I’ll sue you, yourself, personally. That little lake cabin of yours looks sweet, and my wife’ll have chintz curtains on that thing by Christmas.”

My boss literally took two steps back from that. Then she pointed at me. “I’m sorry, but we have to let you go. It’s just business. It has nothing to do with you.”

Neither Andy nor Jill even pretended to feel bad for me. I think Jill may have giggled. My ears felt as if something were shrieking into them, maybe one of those big dinosaurs so horrible that they eat even bigger dinosaurs. Then the dinosaur ripped my ears off and pranced around the cubicle waving my ears around and roaring into them. I closed my eyes and spewed the first stupid thing that hit my tongue. “But, my employees love me. If you fire me, you’ll make them sad.”

My boss stared at me, apparently unmoved. I went on, “And then you’ll have to talk to them.”

As far as I knew, my boss had never spoken to any of my 30 employees, nor come within polite speaking distance. I think she was afraid of them. Perhaps she should have been. I brought in sandwiches, or candy, or pie for them, three or four times a week. I praised them as if they were cocker spaniel puppies, and I let them do whatever the hell they wanted. I did this on the theory that in a company environment of undirected, fitful bursts of random activity, a totally chaotic mob of employees would prove just as effective as a highly regimented staff. I was wrong. They were more effective. And they were far more terrifying to anyone except the man who dispensed love and treats.

My boss’s jaw fell slack in obliterating horror. She glanced at Jill, who growled. She looked at Andy, who leaned back and crossed his legs, radiating danger.

My boss didn’t get where she is by being uncreative and indecisive. She lifted her chin and said, “I see there’s only one fair way to do this. Jill, I’m not going to lay you off because you’re the lowest paid and a woman. Andy, I’m not going to lay you off because you’re the highest paid and a senior worker. I’ll prove that I’m fair by laying you both off, so you can see that I’m not discriminating against either of you.”

I jerked in high-voltage shock. Andy slipped his left hand over his mouth and looked down. Jill yanked out her iPhone, hissing like a cross-wired coffee maker. My boss continued, “Andy, Jill, thank you for your valued service to this organization. We regret that you have to go, and please know that you’ll be missed. Security will be here in ten minutes, so you should pack up fast.”

She smiled a mother’s smile at me and said, “I’m happy you’ll be staying with us. I hope you appreciate the trust that the company and I are placing in you. You’ll take over Andy’s and Jill’s groups, so they’ll roll under you. I know that’ll bring your staff up to, what, 70 employees or so, but you’ve demonstrated that you can handle it.” Without waiting for me to say anything, she whirled and floated from the cubicle, a thousand pounds lighter than when she’d entered.

I sat down, facing my laptop, and avoided looking at Andy and Jill. They didn’t speak, but I heard a lot of useless desktop detritus being hurled into cardboard boxes. I assessed my situation. Now I was alone. I had no one to lean on. I had no one to shift blame to. I had no one to scheme against. And I didn’t have to worry about those two sweaty hyenas anymore.

True, I had a lot more people to manage, but what did that really mean? I’d spend more time wandering around telling people how great they were, and trying to ignore the appalling disasters they were creating—disasters that would end up saving the day once corporate got its head out of its ass. And I’d have to buy a lot more sandwiches and pie. I wondered whether I could push for a raise out of this.

And they say that people skills aren’t relevant anymore.

For someone whose leg bone resembles a sock full of toothpicks, my mom smiled a lot this morning. She splintered that femur a couple of months ago. Officially, she’s hanging out in the hospital rehabilitating. To me it looks like she’s working hard and then negating her hard work by lying in the bed a lot, complaining about meaningless bullshit, and keeping quiet when she needs real help. At least she’s eating more. Yesterday she ate nine grapes, three bites of chicken, and a Dorito.

This morning she complained from within the embrace of her bed, maligning the bacon (not crisp enough), the toast (not thick enough), and the eggs (not made of real baby chickens). I leaned back in the stiff hospital armchair and listened as she savored her frustration and disdain. I only needed to grunt a few times and nod occasionally to keep things going. She was like a barnyard goose, for which honking and biting are the signs of contentment. All she needed was something to honk at and bite.

She spent a few minutes complaining about Jay, the aide she had called 10 minutes before. Then Jay arrived. Rather than pouring displeasure upon Jay, she smiled and laughed to see him, and she greeted him like another son. As he helped her from the magnificent bed to the torturous wheelchair, my mom told him how much she appreciated his help, and how well he did his job, and how much she’d miss him when he went on vacation next week. Jay smiled in return and prepared her for her day.

As Jay left, my mom said, “Don’t forget to get your candy!” She pointed to a narrow table that held a bag of candy as big as a cement sack. Jay nodded and reached into the bag, pulling a tiny Milky Way from all the infant chocolate bars in the bag. Jay left with a wave.

I didn’t think that odd. My mom feels that the Apocalypse is near if everyone around her isn’t eating. I’ve seen her weep when someone left her house without taking the entire pizza she pressed him to accept. I am not kidding. So the world would actually seem stranger if she didn’t have a giant horde of food to force on people while she starved herself.

My mom explained how the hospital was a place of horrors, and she revealed that the people who worked there were coming into her room and stealing her things. Nurses had stolen all of her uncle’s things when he’d been in a home, and they were doing the same thing here. After some concerned questioning, I determined that the extent of her loss was one diaper that had disappeared four nights ago. I suggested that this wasn’t exactly the Brinks Job, but she clutched tight her fury towards the thieving staff.

At that moment the nurse, Nesi, walked in with my mom’s morning medication. She grinned at him like he was Santa Claus, and she gushed her joy at seeing him. That joy faded when she saw the two pills as big as cockroaches he wanted her to swallow, but she choked them down and instantly forgave him. As he left to take his insanely huge pills to the next patient, my mom said, “Don’t leave without taking some of your candy!” Nesi grinned, grabbed two Snickers, and left.

After my mom had spent several minutes bitching about her leg brace, which an aide had slapped on like she was making a burrito at Taco Bell, the physical therapist, Ann, popped in. My mom greeted her as if they’d stolen apples and skinny dipped together as girls. It wasn’t yet time for therapy, but Ann was just passing by and thought she’d check on my mom. My mom chatted with her for a minute, insisted that she take candy, and nodded approval as Ann left with a Snickers of her own.

My mom was only able to complain about her wheelchair for a minute before the doctor entered. My mom did not offer her a cheerful welcome. In fact, she looked as if a bad smell had walked into the room. The doctor listened to my mom’s heart with fierce efficiency, bragged about how cool her kickboxing lessons were, and swept out of the room without being offered candy. My mom considers the doctor to be some kind of management, whereas the nurses and aides are working people who deserve chocolate.

Five minutes later another aide, Olivia, joined us for no particular purpose that I could determine. My mom effused about how pretty Olivia was, and how good she was, and how smart she was to have just passed her entrance exam for grad school. Olivia held my mom’s hand and beamed at her for a minute before leaving with two Milky Ways and a Three Musketeers.

A few minutes later an aide poked his head to ask how my mom was doing, to bask in her adoring thanks, and to nick a little chocolate. Ten minutes later it happened again with a different aide. During these visits, my mom lavished sincere praise and affection on them. Between visits she explained to me the awful, crushing oppression of this institution and the callous contempt that the staff cherished in their hearts.

Perhaps an hour into my visit the nurse, Nesi, stepped back in, looked uncertain for a moment, and asked my mom how she was doing. She assured him all was well, and Nesi snagged another Snickers. Then he asked my mom to tell my father not to buy any more candy. It wasn’t good for the staff. My mom said she’d ask, but she didn’t have any control over what my father did or didn’t buy. Nesi sighed and grabbed another Snickers for the road.

I finally asked my mom about the candy, and she told me that my father had brought it in before Halloween, three weeks earlier. I observed that the bag was close to empty, so it shouldn’t be a problem for Nesi and his staff much longer. She looked surprised and explained that this was the third bag my father had brought. They only cost seven dollars a bag, so that wasn’t too expensive.

As I was contemplating that, my father arrived. After a round of greetings, my mom told him that Nesi had asked for a moratorium on the Milky Ways and such. My father shrugged and said, “They don’t cost much, and everybody seems to like them. I’ll just keep bringing them.”

My mom exclaimed over what a nice man my father is, and he continued, “Hell, seven dollars is buying you more service than any other money we’ve ever spent. Everybody on the floor’s coming by to get some of that candy. They can’t just walk in and ask for it. They’ve got to ask whether you need something.”

Then I realized what I was seeing, and why it looked familiar. You can be nice to people, and you can be a calculating son of a bitch, all at the same time. I’ve done it myself a thousand times. I must get it from my father.

My mom and my father, and their pets. Moments later the photographer gave us this photo for free when my father offered to fix his light meter.

“Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit” is my collection of humorous and sarcastic essays, and as of today it’s available at Amazon.com! You can purchase the e-book in Kindle format for $3.99, and it contains over 80 essays pulled together from the Infinite Monkeys Publishing site, The Whims of Fairness, and totally new material. Plenty of great photo illustrations with snide captions are included as well. This book can be purchased at this Amazon.com link.

For those of the Nook persuasion, “Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit” will be available electronically at Barnes and Noble within a few days!

 

I have failed my greatest tests of character. I admit that doesn’t look good on a t–shirt. I suppose I could try to equivocate, or even slip out of this admission entirely. I might say that a test of character is “an instance in which one is faced with a situation that challenges the social norms of one’s culture.” That half-assed sociology student’s definition would enable me to meet any challenge with buckets of character to spare. But hell, I can barely understand what it says. My people didn’t define a test of character that way. For them it was, “you want to do a thing you know ain’t right.”

Like everyone, I’ve demonstrated my tarnished character many times in my life, maybe two or three times a day since I turned three years old. Mostly the small things defeat me. Watching Popeye smack the fool out of Bluto while I should have been cleaning my room. Drinking beer at school when someone was around to take my picture as evidence. Blowing off Biology because English was more fun. By the way, if they don’t want that to happen then they shouldn’t make you collect bugs for Biology while they let you make movies for English. These were small tests, but I’ve failed many thousands of them, and they add up. They add up to exactly not a damn thing, in my opinion. They’re just the price of having bigger frontal lobes than the other primates. That’s right, I jumped off the house to impress a girl because my lobes are big.

But bigger challenges have often annihilated me. And I don’t remember anyone walking behind me dangling a carrot in front of my face. I embraced character corrosion all on my own. For example, my heart told me that dropping out of college was the wrong move. My brain, gut, gall bladder, and pancreas did too. I didn’t listen or even care. Later on, I knew with mathematical certainty that when I walked into the totally nude bar with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red in my right hand and a bottle of Gatorade in my left, it would result in me starting a fight and waking up the next morning in a pool of vomit and blood. Did it anyway. I haven’t always done the most awful thing possible. I have good days. But I have faced decisions about cruel behavior, illicit substances, illegal activities, procrastination, prevarication, and degradation of the temple that is my body. I made the wrong choice pretty often. And I admit that these decisions do mean something to me when I take my character out to examine it at night.

But my most devastating character tests have involved women. I’ve chosen well at times, emphatically so in the case of my current wife. But generally, getting involved with a woman has turned my character into a pillar of salt. I’ve fallen for women who reviled me, women who ignored me, and women who thought they liked me okay until our first date. I always knew I was making the wrong choice, but I didn’t possess the character to say no. I chased women whose boyfriends rightly threatened to kill me, and I caught women only to break their hearts. I was stupid enough to fall for my best friend’s wife, and reckless enough to marry the human least suitable on the entire planet to be my spouse. Note that I included both genders in that statement to give you an idea of the real scope of my blunder. These were my greatest tests, and unfortunately I’m a sucker for women, a sucker for love, and a sucker for bad choices about both.

Thank God for my current wife. Without her I’d probably fall into every bottomless crevasse of character subversion that I walk past.

They say that suffering builds character. Well, I don’t remember a single time that shrieking agony, even the emotional kind, built my character. Not a bit, not even at the atomic level. It just pissed me off. Occasionally it made me sad, but mostly I wanted to pry off someone’s testicles, yank out their eyes, and nail the testicles into the empty sockets. I guess that’s just me. If suffering builds character, why do so many people lead wretched lives, yet you wouldn’t trust them to scrub bird shit off a statue of Yogi Bear?

I’m going to assume that at some points in my life I did build a little character. I can resist accepting a gritty crust of bread as payment to dry gulch an orphan for her lunch money and her Hello Kitty backpack. I do have a modest capacity for doing the right thing. How did I build this smidge of character? It seems like on the few occasions that my character stretched, it filled me with frustration. Regret and even nausea often followed. These disturbing symptoms appeared when I decided to do a right thing and then stick with that decision throughout the complete denial of the thing I’d rather be doing. I would think, “Ah this is what it’s like to do the right thing. I am building character, and it will make it easier to feel even more frustrated and shitty the next time I do the right thing. Goody—I’ll go ahead and start getting extra frustrated now to be sure I don’t miss it next time around.”

I guess building character’s like building a muscle. If I work to make the right decisions now, I get better at making them next time, no matter how big a frustrated dope I feel like. I can now hear the generations of my people more clearly, saying to me, “Show some character, boy. To hell with that suffering shit. Just do what you ought to, get a big dose of frustration and nausea, and learn to like it.”

I’m almost glad that I’ll be dead relatively soon. By “relatively” I mean a hell of a lot sooner than the kids shrieking through the grocery store, pawing the fruit roll-up boxes and licking apples that I might unknowingly purchase and eat. They walk around with wires stuck in their ears like defective Frankenstein’s Monsters. They text and tweet with astounding virtuosity, yet I could get more articulate speech from a raccoon. If they will inherit the Earth, I want to first vacate the premises.

My thoughts on this topic recently crystallized when I kept my great-nephew Alex for three days. His parents had planned a second honeymoon at the Chocktaw Casino in Oklahoma, and I am a closet romantic. When I told my wife I’d agreed to harbor this eight year old being for the weekend, she looked at me without expression for a dozen heartbeats, smiled, and told me about the business conference in Orlando that she’d completely forgotten to mention. She left for the airport at 3:00 Friday afternoon, and Alex arrived at 3:30.

I looked at Alex and admitted that he appeared to be a pretty good kid. He was clean at least, his sneakers were tied, and his blue jeans covered his underwear. An iPod stuck out of his pocket, and he clutched a Gameboy in his left hand. Yes, he had ear buds jammed into his ears. I wasn’t sure what to do now, although I had a vague urge to make a grilled cheese sandwich and watch the “A-Team.” Instead I asked, “Anything you want to do?”

Alex looked around my living room. He might have looked around his prison cell at Attica precisely the same way. He shrugged at me and said, “Dunno. Watch TV maybe?”

His folks had directed me not to let him watch TV, since he was grounded for some infraction they wouldn’t explain, other than to say they were showering at the neighbors’ for a while. “Sorry, no TV. You know the rule.”

He nodded without ill will. “You got a Wii or X-Box?” I shook my head, wondering why I felt less manly for not having a Wii. “Do you have anything fun on your computer?”

I frowned. “Not unless you really like Excel.”

“Nah. I just track my baseball team’s stats with it.”

We both stopped talking and stood uselessly. He looked at me like I was a gorilla in the zoo and he was wondering what it would do next. I gazed around at various things that weren’t him. It seemed wrong that he was a kid staying in my home yet I felt put on the spot.

The iPod in Alex’s pocket inspired me. “What kind of music do you listen to?”

He straightened a bit and said, “Lady Gaga.”

I had heard of this person, but I didn’t know much about her. “What’s the name of one of her songs that you like?”

He paused. “Highway Unicorn.”

I managed not to say, “You’re kidding, right?” Instead I spoke like a responsible adult. “Don’t you think that the names ‘Lady Gaga’ and ‘Highway Unicorn’ are kind of silly?”

Alex shrugged. “Who’d you like when you were a kid?”

“Meatloaf,” I said.

“What’s one of his good songs?”

Now I saw the trap, but I couldn’t escape. I grimaced. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

Alex raised his eyebrows.

I sighed and wondered if my wife would be going to Magic Kingdom or Epcot first. I said, “So, do you want to watch TV?”

The television and the Gameboy saved me until Saturday afternoon. Alex’s iPod and iPhone were irrelevant to the situation. He listened to music and texted simultaneously with anything else that was going on. They seemed to be some sort of fundamental technology, necessary but not sufficient for entertaining the higher brain functions. But Saturday afternoon we engaged in an analog activity that proved challenging. We made sandwiches.

I could tell Alex had made sandwiches before. He foraged in my refrigerator with efficiency and gusto. He examined every bag of lunch meat and jar of condiment in detail, providing commentary on the merits of each. If he had dropped the mustard or the ketchup then no difficulty would have followed. But he dropped the pickles, which come in a glass jar. That jar plunged to my red tile floor that’s about as hard as the side of a battleship. Then pickles, juice, and glass shards showered my kitchen.

I recognized this as the moment to be an adult. I looked down at the boy and said in stern but calm tones, “You need to be more careful. Pay attention to what you’re doing. If you don’t then accidents will happen, and you might hurt somebody or yourself.”

Alex looked around the kitchen floor. He may have been waiting for the pickles and glass slivers to hurl themselves at us in order to do us harm, but I don’t know that for sure. After a few seconds Alex shrugged.

“Do you understand?” I wanted confirmation that this critical life lesson had been received.

“Sure,” Alex said without looking at me.

“Okay! After we clean up we’ll make sandwiches. I have a spare jar of pickles behind the case of Diet Coke.” I smiled even though he wasn’t looking at me, because I knew I’d done at least one thing right this weekend.

Instead of using the pickles, I made the kid a grilled cheese sandwich, something he’d never before eaten. That convinced me his parents share none of my DNA. He returned to a fairly cheerful state by the time his evening TV and Gameboy marathon started. I even attempted to watch the Cartoon Network with him, and though I lasted only 15 minutes, he seemed to appreciate the gesture.

Alex’s parents were scheduled to fetch him about 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Cartoons and Gameboy ate Sunday morning, and we found a baseball game in the afternoon that we could both enjoy without mortification or brain damage. After the game, Alex asked me to make him another grilled cheese sandwich. I accepted that as evidence that I had performed my duties well.

I pulled the cheese out of the refrigerator, banged the door with my elbow, and watched a jar full of pickles plummet. It seemed to draw away from me with the grace of those space ships in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I willed gravity to cease, but the pickles smashed to the tiles anyway, with the predictable results.

For some unmarked length of time I stared at the floor. That probably lasted just a few seconds, but I wouldn’t sign an affidavit stating that to be the case. Then I looked over at Alex, who looked back at me with no expression. We stared at one another, and since I felt the need to say something I said, “Oops.”

I followed that incisive observation with, “I guess everybody makes mistakes. Sorry I was so hard on you.”

Alex raised his eyebrows. He refrained from saying any of the things that I so obviously deserved to hear. Instead, he fetched my broom and mop, which were unaccustomed to being used two days in a row and must have felt giddy at all the attention.

I spent the rest of the afternoon rather subdued, sitting in the den pretending to write while Alex watched something called “Almost Naked Animals.” His parents arrived on time, and all four of us scrambled around the house for 20 minutes making sure he was taking home everything he’d brought with him. All the time I writhed inside, waiting for him to tell his folks what a dope I’d been, and what I failure I was at something they must take for granted.

Alex and his parents stood at the door with a stuffed backpack and a full arsenal of modern electronic implements. His mom directed him to tell me thanks and goodbye. I waited with what I thought was admirable stoicism.

“Thanks. Bye.” Then he thundered out the door and down the steps like a Pekinese that’s been kept indoors all day. His folks echoed their thanks and extended a dinner invitation unlikely to ever be fulfilled. They mounted their Corolla and drove away. I swung my front door closed and realized I was doomed.

The little weasel can hold this over me for the rest of my life. At the decisive moment, when it will do me the most damage, he can whip out this evidence of my idiocy and stab me in the heart with it. Every kid in the world must be able to do this to any adult with whom they’ve spent a couple of days. And when these kids take over, we’ll have no defense.

I hope I don’t see that day. But just in case, maybe I should become a grilled cheese sandwich virtuoso.

I’ve completed the text of my upcoming e-book, “Bring Us the Head of the Head of the Velveteen Rabbit: Inspirational Essays on Fear, Failure and Falling on Your Ass.” I expect that it will be available at Amazon by the end of the month and at Barnes and Noble soon after. The book will include 83 sarcastic and timely essays, complete with photo illustrations and snarky captions. Some of essays have already appeared here in my blog and some at Infinite Monkeys Publishing, but a good number have never before been released. Among the favorites and the new pieces are:

  • I Hate My Brain
  • The Words of My People
  • Laughing All the Way to the Grave
  • Surrendering the Moral High Ground
  • Just Sex, Religion and Politics? What About the Drugs and the Rock and Roll?
  • The Least Romantic Man in America
  • Days of Wine and Mammoths
  • I Built a Whole Lot of Real Good Nothing
  • Read This, Or My Goldfish Will Kick Your Ass

Look for a release announcement here before you know it.