I’m drinking to celebrate the fact that, as of today, I’ve been to more weddings than funerals this year. I’ve grieved that several of my loved ones passed beyond the reach of man, although at least I hadn’t loaned any of them books. On the other hand, more than twice as many friends promised to love and honor each other forever, and they celebrated by accepting ugly wall clocks and pretentious 1-cup coffee makers.

It’s a happy situation. I’m therefore drinking vodka, which is nasty, rather than tequila, which is loathsome.

As I listened to the vows in today’s ceremony, I thought about my own wedding vows. If I wrote my marriage vows today, they’d be vastly different from the ones I wrote for my actual wedding. In addition to love, honor, and cherish, I might include vows like:

  • I promise to do whatever it takes to keep you warm, even if it means adopting more cats to pile on the bed.
  • I promise to pay attention to things you like so I can buy them for you later.
  • I promise to pay attention when you tell me I’m acting crazy.
  • I promise never to cook Garlic Orange Chicken Stir Fry again.
  • I promise not to make fun of your addiction to making lists.

Then I realized most of that was pretty dumb and not at all what I want to say. Then I thought about what I want to say instead of that. Then I drank vodka, which kind of helped. Then I decided that I really wanted to talk about how marriage changes things. I mean, one moment you’re in love, and the next moment you’re in love and married. What the heck does that mean?

Here’s the short version. Love is a gift you give your lover. Marriage is a war you fight against yourself.

Here’s the long version. I think the “love is a gift” part is pretty understandable. It includes basic things like giving flowers and back rubs, physical intimacy, and treating your lover no less courteously than you would treat a librarian or a beloved English actor.

On another “love is a gift” level, whenever I’m out later than expected, I call my wife. She does the same for me. As I call her, my buddies may harass me by saying she “really has me on a short leash.” I explain that I’m glad she at least cares where I’m at instead of using my absence to frolic with a grunge-punk band and shoot dope under her toenails. Besides which, being so paranoid about really short leashes makes them sound like they have tiny penises.

The “marriage is a war” part is less obvious. Whenever my wife and I behave like loving, caring individuals, no war is necessary. But sometimes we act like regular people, which is to say irrational and thoughtless. When I feel my wife is acting that way, I have decisions to make and possibly a war to fight.

Here’s an example. I indicate to my wife, I think successfully, that I’m interested in a little hanky-panky later in the evening. I receive promising indications, but not a positive confirmation. We go to dinner with a friend, and my wife orders a barbeque plate of heroic proportions. I anticipate her request for a doggie bag, but it never comes. She enjoys the entire meal. Now any attempt at hanky-panky that evening would result in nothing but her shrieking like a rabbit caught in a gate.

My war against myself begins inside my head.

“Was I clear? I know I was clear. Does this mean something? Maybe she’s not too interested in me anymore. Or maybe I wasn’t clear. Did she have to order the big plate? It’s not like we were going to a French restaurant or something. We can go to this place anytime. Am I less desirable than a barbeque sandwich? I don’t know what to say to that. That can’t be right. But hell, she didn’t have to eat the whole dinner—she could have taken part of it home for tomorrow. Am I less sexy than half a barbeque sandwich? I can’t ask that! What if she says yes?”

At this point I am losing the war. I have taken something she did that annoyed me, and I’ve transformed it into a marriage-threatening cataclysm that I can’t talk to her about because I’m terrified of what we might say. Even better, as long as I don’t say anything, this will now creep around unseen in our marriage like a French Resistance fighter causing more creative and disruptive sabotage forever after.

How do I win the war? I risk everything. I open my mouth and say the stupid things I was worrying about. Even if it hurts my wife, hurts me, and hurts the guy who made the sandwich. I listen to her possibly-horrifying responses, because if our marriage survives this then at least we won’t have it under the surface tearing our marriage apart.

That’s what I mean by marriage being a war you fight against yourself. I’m not sure what that would look like in a wedding vow. Maybe something like:

  • I promise to fight for us. We’re worth risking everything for.

Now I’m going to cook dinner. We’re having soup. And vodka.

It was a beautiful water-side wedding. An hour later the groom’s father whispered to him, “Son, you’ll be fine if you just have some guts and don’t act like one of those guys with a tiny penis.”
It was a beautiful water-side wedding. An hour later the groom’s father whispered to him, “Son, you’ll be fine if you just have some guts and don’t act like one of those guys with a tiny penis.”

Photo by Brocken Inaglory.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Yesterday I almost beat my barber to death with a blow dryer. I held myself back because there’s no beer in prison, and because I suspected in some vague way that it might be wrong. I’ve known the fellow for years, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about movies, and his kids, and the weather, and semi-automatic pistols while he gave me a severe buzz-cut. I could have paid a chimp and gotten the same haircut, but he’s a good guy who reminds me of the guys I grew up with.

As my buddy trimmed my sideburns yesterday, he decided to talk politics. He further decided to expound about a jagged rainbow of social problems, and he did it with such malice that I felt sick. I might have yelled at him, or even punched him if he wasn’t holding a pair of scissors an inch from my jugular. Please note that I’m not saying which side of the debate he stood upon. I don’t want to talk about the issues. I want to talk about murder.

When he’d finished I said nothing. My dad always told me that no one ever changed somebody else’s mind about politics or religion by talking to them, so save your breath. I hurled a venomous glare at my former friend and hoped my 20 dollar bill gave him paper cuts. I took a distracted left out of the parking lot and cut off a dump truck. Then I drove around without a destination for an hour, wondering how someone I’d liked for so long could turn out to be such a spiteful, terrible person.

I don’t have a priest or minister to turn to when the universe has turned to crap and I don’t know how I’ll ever again relate to my fellow man, not even when I’m miserable because the universe is busy hiding cruelty from me like putrid Easter eggs. In these cases I turn to the wisest man I know, Fat Mike, the owner of Fat Mike’s Rib Shack. Seven blocks later I pulled into Fat Mike’s parking lot, right between a Christian bookstore and a head shop.

I found Mike preparing for the dinner rush, which meant he was sitting in a duct-taped executive chair with his bare feet up on the counter, a paper plate piled with ribs balanced on his round belly, and a red plastic cup of sweet tea in his hand. He waved the tea at me as I walked over, dribbling some barbeque sauce on his purple Hawaiian shirt, and he said, “Hey Bubba. Cheer up—you ain’t making decisions where people might die today, and nobody’s shooting at you. It’s a good day.”

That failed to cheer me up. I explained about my friend the barber and about my existential crisis, while Mike peeled a rib with his teeth. When I was done, he swallowed and said, “That’s a tough one, Bubba. I don’t have a great answer, but here’s what I do. Actually, what I do depends on how good I feel at the time. Now if I feel really bad, say I’m hung over, or doing my taxes, or my wife has locked me out of the house, I just say to hell with the bastards. I go ahead and hate them worse than diarrhea and just accept that there’s people in the world more useless than a monkey fart. Then I go on about my business.”

Mike pitched a denuded rib bone at a gray trash bin and missed. As the bone skidded into the corner, a yellow mongrel dog charged out from under the counter, snatched the bone, and trotted back under the counter out of sight. Mike said, “When I’m feeling better and everything’s all right, my car’s washed and my grass is mowed, I look at it different. I figure this is the world I’ve got and these are the people I’ve got, and I can’t change any of them. I might as well try to make something good out of sharing the planet with the miserable toe-suckers. I don’t let them stomp all over me, but lots of misery in my life has come from trying to change shit I can’t do anything about. Rib?” He held out a dripping beef rib, and I said no thanks.

Shrugging, Mike gnawed off some rib meat and chewed while he said, “When I’m feeling really good, like when I win a $50 scratch-off or find a station with real cheap gas, I figure that I don’t know what some vile turd’s life’s been like or how he got that way. Hell, I’ve got a nephew who’s a tumor of a man, a real cast iron ass-crack, but I remember him being a toddler, playing in my lap, a sweet kid. And I know how he got to be a louse. If I met some horrible asshole and knew him the way I know my nephew, I might look at him a little different—maybe.”

Mike stood and dumped the plate of rib bones in the trash, and I heard a whine from under the counter. Using a paper towel to wipe off each finger, Mike said, “When I feel great—I mean fantastic—like I’m headed to Disney World tomorrow, or my wife bought me a table saw for Christmas, I remind myself that I don’t know what that rancid piece of crap is thinking. For all I know, he may think I’m the nasty jerk, because he’s ignorant of stuff I know. And he knows things I don’t know. Hell, maybe I am the nasty jerk, and I don’t know it. Probably not, but it makes me stop and think before I condemn the guy to shovel shit in hell.”

“So there you go, Bubba. That’s how I handle it, from nasty to not quite as nasty,” Mike said as he strolled around the counter and put a hand on my shoulder. It almost felt fatherly until I realized he was steering me towards the door and out of his hair. As he pushed open the screen door for me he said, “And one last thing I guess. When I’m feeling honest, as opposed to feeling good, I have to admit that no matter what lousy crap that person has done, I’ve probably done just as bad at some point, if not the same dang thing.”

Mike let the door slam behind me, and he said through the rusty screen, “Or maybe I’ve done stuff even worse. How do you think I can stand to put up with you?”

“So, where do you stand on immigration reform and capital gains taxes?”

When did politics become more important than sex? Every person I know isn’t just talking about politics, they’re breathing fire about it. I’m not apolitical. I have opinions. But politics has become like a demolition derby, except that all the cars have slush funds and great hair. Every political party conjures an ocean of facts and evidence to prove it’s right, and I’d almost prefer that we could just tell them to bring us the Holy Grail and then we’d listen to them. Honestly, if I could figure out which party was lying to us the most, I’d go to their headquarters, ring the bell, and leave a flaming bag of dog shit.

I took my pathetic political ignorance to the wisest man I know, Fat Mike, the owner of Fat Mike’s Rib Shack. It was 112 degrees in the shack, and Fat Mike was sweating like a horse after the Kentucky Derby. I bought a pound and a half of beef brisket and asked him to explain politics.

Fat Mike waved his flyswatter like a magic wand and said, “Bubba, the problem is that the thing people think is politics ain’t really politics. It’s actually policy. Whatever you think and want—that’s policy. The way you get it—that’s politics.” He nodded at me in dismissal and turned away to stir up two gallons of iced tea with the long end of a framing square.

I cleared my throat, and when Mike glanced around I gave him a look of gaping incomprehension. “All right, I see you’re slow,” he said. He flopped his sausage-like forearms on the counter and deigned to continue. “Imagine that you’re two years old, and you’re at the grocery store. You see some piece of crap plastic toy car, and you decide you need the thing. That is policy. Since your mom ain’t dumb and knows the car will fall apart after ten minutes in your destructive hands, she says no. You don’t like it, so you pitch backwards on the floor in the middle of the store and shriek like your testicles are being torn off. I mean, dogs in the street are dropping dead.” Mike leered at me and slapped the counter, smearing some barbeque sauce. “That’s your way of getting what you want, Bubba. That’s politics.”

Mike turned back to his iced tea and dumped in eight cups of Imperial Pure Cane Sugar. I waited, pondering what he’d told me. As Mike ambled back to the counter, scratching a hole in the belly of his stained wife-beater undershirt, he said, “Damn it to hell, are you still here?” I thought about the futility of telling him I was a customer, and instead I nodded. Mike shook his head and said, “All right, since you’re so particularly dim today, let me break it down for you. Policy and politics are important, ‘cause we got big problems right now. But if you don’t keep the two separate in your mind, it’ll hose you up every time.

“Before I found sanity, I had a corporate job,” Mike said. I would have been less surprised to hear he’d been a millionaire Cambodian transvestite. “A lady I worked with got an impossible project. Some people wanted it work, some people hated the idea, and that was policy, all fine and swell. But the Big VP who hated it the most got himself made sponsor of that project. However, my friend’s own boss VP wanted that project to work real bad, and he had some pull.”

Mike sniffed a pan of peach cobbler, poked his finger in it, licked the cobbler off and nodded. “My friend was real smart and worked damn hard. Whenever the Big VP screwed her over, she went to her own VP, and he’d give her some good advice. She’d go follow that advice, but that son of a bitch Big VP would just screw her up again. The project was going nowhere, and everybody was getting pissed at my friend.

Finally, my friend’s VP told her to just fire the Big VP as her sponsor. I tell you, she was pretty shocked. She didn’t realize she could do such a thing. But the project was going in the ditch, so she went to the Big VP and fired him. You cannot possibly imagine the shit storm that fell on her then. Everything happened to her except getting turned into a pillar of salt.”

Fat Mike leaned back against the far counter and jostled an aluminum tray, spilling a good trickle of bean juice down his Bermuda shorts. He said, “My friend’s career was ruined. She’d have to move to Guam to get a job washing the cafeteria tables. She went to her own VP weeping to ask what had happened and whether he could help her. He laughed at her and said, ‘I guess you won’t be on the Big VP’s Christmas card list.’ You see, her own VP never had given a crap about the project. The whole time he was just using her to make the Big VP look bad.”

Mike tapped a Camel out of its pack and lit it with a shiny Ronson. He sucked in a drag as if it was his ticket through the Pearly Gates and said, “That, Bubba, is politics.”

They don’t look so vicious now. Wait until they grow up and start taking PAC money.