We all know that most Canadians are polite. I now know why. They sublimate their fury. Canadians drive like enraged Mongols. They walk through public places like they were electrons pinging around in a supercollider. I can only confirm that’s true for the ones in Montreal, of course, and only for some of them, but evidence is evidence.

Our hotel in Montreal sits next to the largest mall in Quebec. I mean I could spit on it from my window if I wanted to, and if my window opened. I was surprised, since I had only been looking for a reasonable rate at a hotel that was still inside Quebec. We had gotten into town right in the middle of the Montreal evening rush hour that lasts from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. We were tired and snippy, and we just wanted to eat something cheap and fast, then go to bed.

At the mall I realized that only one in fifty or so Canadians is overweight. I now know why. Fast food at the largest mall in Quebec was not a double cheeseburger with super-size fries. It was a small bowl of tortellini that cost the same as a double cheeseburger with super-size fries. I wasn’t getting the same dollar to calorie ratio that I do at home, but I didn’t feel cheated. I felt kind of smug and superior. I drove around and cut people off in traffic for a while, and all the nastiness went away.

These Legos have nothing to do with anything except I saw them in the mall and thought they were cool. The Midgaard Serpent is just out of frame to the left.

I’ve learned how to derive an extraordinary amount of self-esteem from washing dishes and scooping cat litter. That’s because we unemployed people have to seize our ego-boosts wherever we find them. Folding laundry may not seem like something to celebrate, but after a certain number of fruitless job applications your self-image is dragging behind you like toilet paper on your shoe.

Like every good 21st Century American, I wrap a lot of my identity up in my occupation. Everybody does to some degree. You’re a teacher, he’s a bricklayer, she owns a frozen yogurt store. That’s who you are. Even a crack dealer can say to himself, “Hey, I sell crack. I sell people something they want until they die sprawled in the gutter with antifreeze and rat shit.” He has an identity.

It may take me some time to find work, because my skills are rather eclectic. I don’t want to get specific, but by way of analogy it’s as if I were a great fry cook, a fine goat farmer, and a pretty good loan shark. I’d need to find a bookie operating out of a greasy diner that serves gourmet goat steaks, raised on the premises because you can’t trust a commercially produced goat. Only in that environment could my full range of skills be employed.

During this jobless time I’m leaning a bit on my identity as a writer, but that’s been battered by a recent salvo of rejection notices, leaving my writer image structurally unsound at the moment. Some of the rejections said nice things about my work, but they all ended with the familiar phrase, “not for me.”

However, I’m tempted to write an etiquette guide for the unemployed. There’s a real need. For example, when you go to a party or funeral or something, people will ask, “What do you do?” Kicking that person in the knee is bad manners, especially if the dearly departed is nearby. What’s the proper response?

You could say, “I’m looking for a job.” It’s direct and truthful. But there are only two responses. Your questioner could raise his eyebrows before saying something sympathetic that fails to conceal his searing contempt. Or he might ask what kind of job you’re looking for. That leads to an awkward conversation about goats and loan sharking that goes nowhere good or even tolerable. Forget that.

You could lie. You might say, “I’m a hedge-fund manager.” That’s perfect because no one knows what it is, but it sounds good and people know you make lots of money while screwing everyone on the planet, including orphans and kittens. Or you could say, “I create computer icons. Every time you start up Internet Explorer, I get a penny.” These lies are pretty satisfying, but two minutes on Google will reveal your prevarication, and then you’ll look like a bigger loser than ever.

The appropriate response to the, “What do you do?” question is a combination of the truth and a lie. You first say, “I’m looking for a job.” Then, as your interrogator raises his eyebrows in snide sympathy, you show a smile that implies someone’s given you a puppy that drools 30 year-old whiskey. You add, “I have enough savings to go two or three years before I have to get a job, so I’m taking my time and being selective.” Just watch as envy devours every bit of his face. That is how to handle that question.

We unemployed folk face a lot of similarly awkward social encounters. How to get people to take you to restaurants you can’t afford and not look like a deadbeat. Creating believable and marginally truthful business cards even though you don’t work for a business. Managing social media statuses so that you don’t appear to be a hobo. Yes, writing a book about unemployment etiquette is just what I need to pump up my self-esteem. I only need a title:

Jobless but Genteel: You may lose your job, but you can keep your dignity.

Nothing says dignity like “Yak.”

This photo is by travelwayoflife, and is a Featured Picture on Wikimedia Commons.This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I like strong-willed children. I believe they will go far if they’re not hanged. It’s my bias, of course. I was known to be a kid who followed the rules, but in fact I was a kid who broke the rules whenever they aggravated me. I just didn’t get caught very often.

It’s easy for me to say I like strong-willed children because my wife and I chose not to have children. I don’t have to do battle with an unruly kid every day until he goes to college or goes to jail. I’m being kind of presumptuous, really. But when I see a little kid who knows what he wants and creates hell on Earth to get it, I don’t think to myself, “There’s a bad kid.” I think, “There’s a parent who’s slacking off but is still a better parent than I would be.”

Some of our friends tell my wife and me that we should be parents. I love these friends the way I love people who believe in world peace and unicorns. I would probably produce clever little thugs with a dubious neurological heritage, and after the first time our toddler snottily defied my wife I’d be driving to prison for conjugal visits. I’m pretty sure that’s an exaggeration, but I wouldn’t bet my soul on it.

Yesterday we visited with friends who have two little boys, about elementary school age. This is the age when most boys should be thrown into an iron box and fed through a slot. They were among the most well-behaved children I have ever met. Their parents released them unsupervised into the wilderness of a toy store while we chatted, with only the words, “You may each get one thing.” Then they ignored their boys, except occasionally when one returned for guidance on something he was considering.

Half an hour later each child had chosen one toy and presented it with boyish, wiggly excitement. As the clerks checked us out they kept talking about how nice and polite the boys were, as astounded as if they’d just seen vermin build a suspension bridge. At lunch the kids ordered with articulate, polite efficiency. Later we walked around the mall full of insanely enticing childhood attractions like free cookie samples and toy cars roaming the floor. The boys bounced around and pointed, but they never caused any problems.

I was pretty dang impressed.

So where does this strong-willed-children comment come in? As I talked to the older boy, I realized that his civilized behavior had not been easily won. His parents confirmed that it was a fight with him sometimes. The kid reminded me of one of those circus elephants that’s been taught to play nice, but that knows deep down it can’t be denied if it goes after something.

As we walked the mall I began thinking it might have been nice to have kids. The parents and I talked about nothing much, and then they mentioned that they’d like to figure out a way to let their kids play against other kids in games on the X-Box, but they wanted to do it in a way that won’t rot their sons’ brains.

“You could let them play, but only if they can figure out how to cheat,” I said. “It’s like an intellectual exercise.”

The subsequent silence indicated that was not a good answer. So maybe it’s better after all that we haven’t reproduced. No kids, then.

But to continue a theme, I also like difficult women. That’s a different story with a lot fewer references to being well-behaved.

I may be balancing a ball in the circus today, but tomorrow I’ll be free to fling dirt on my head.

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

I like almost everybody. That’s why I hate to be around people.

I don’t mean that I like everything about everybody. That’s some kind of psychiatric illness, and I’ve already got all of those I need. And there are a few people I’d just like to stab a lot and be done with them. But I can find something to like about almost everyone, even if I just appreciate seeing my own folly in them. For example, at midnight when I’m eating my pancakes at I-HOP, maybe a guy staggers in drunk, knocks over the trash can, screams an apology at the cash register, and passes out in the booth behind me, mumbling in his sleep about some girl named Christie. I think, Yeah, I remember doing that. Hang tough, brother.

So if I like people, why don’t I want to be around them? It’s just exhausting, that’s why. Dinner with a couple of friends is pretty easy, but big herds of people wear me out. First, I’m deaf in my right ear and too vain to get a hearing aid, so I spend a lot of time trying to guess what people are saying. I’m not a good guesser, so my guesses are often a lot more colorful than what was actually said. Someone might say, “Next Saturday is the Jam and Jelly Festival,” and I’d probably guess something like, “Next Saturday is the Fast of Sweaty Genitals.” When I respond to that person, my statement will seem logical to me, but to the 20 people around me at the Chuck E. Cheese birthday party it may seem eccentric.

Second, even when I understand what people say, my immediate response tends disrupt the conversation because I say weird things. I know that will shock my friends. For example, a person may say, “My neighbor’s tree is growing over my backyard. It’s getting to be a problem.”

Then I might say, “You have sort of a Sudetenland problem. You have to hold the line with these guys, or before you know it they’re on your patio, and then they’re dive bombing your garage, and then they’re sitting around the pool with all the cute French girls drinking your wine and invading the shit out of Russia. Then you’ll have to bomb them into rubble, and then you’ll have to rebuild their house and station troops there for 50 years. So just cut the damn thing down in the middle of the night and blame it on raccoons.”

At that point everyone stops and looks at me for five or ten seconds. They’re all really uncomfortable, and then they go back to eating and drinking and talking about assassinating the president of their homeowner’s association as if I’d never spoken. All right, I just made up the assassination part, but that emphasizes the problem.

That sucks. I don’t want all those people to be uncomfortable. After all, I like them. So I try to instead say something like, “Bummer. Have you asked them to trim it? Maybe bring them a pie?” That’s an okay response, but the effort required to not talk about the Sudetenland and to instead talk about pie is fatiguing. When I come home I’m exhausted, and I have to hibernate in my cave for a few hours to recharge.

This causes problems for my wife. She likes people, too. At least she likes me, which proves she’s forgiving enough to like just about anybody. But she loves being around people. It charges her up. I suspect it’s because she’s not expending much energy to stop herself from saying whatever she’s thinking, because she isn’t thinking about the damned Sudetenland. That must be nice. But she wants to go to every let’s-drink-wine party and jam and jelly festival that comes along, and I only want to go to the birthdays of my less popular friends, attended by three guests and a blind dog. After 20 years of this she’s comfortable going to big parties by herself, which I appreciate. But it can still be awkward when she walks out of the house looking like a kid who expected a bicycle and instead got a scratchy wool hat with pom-poms and pink bunnies crucified all over it.

I do better when I have a job. When I can cut slices of cake, or hand out name tags, or calculate way too big a tip, I’m a lot happier. I don’t have to sit there guessing what people are saying. I don’t have to hold back from explaining the parallels between the shell casing ejection mechanism in automatic rifles and my dinner partner’s hemorrhoid problem.

Alas, not many social invitations specify a job. “Please join Sherri and Bob at their Baby Shower to help them celebrate the joyous upcoming birth of their daughter. You’ll be washing the dishes. Bring gloves.” That sort of invitation is sadly uncommon. So, if I don’t show up at your birthday party, please don’t be offended. It’s only because I like you.

What about you? Do you avoid public gatherings like you’d avoid syphilis, or do you hit every party as long as the guests are conscious and there’s at least one dirty glass to drink from?

The last party I went to felt kind of like this.

Photo by Ant Mulligan, from Mala Mala Game Reserve.




Yesterday a lady told me, “I like men who are gentlemen. Until it’s time for them not to be.”

Well crap. I’m confused enough about this gentleman thing without having to figure out when it’s time to stop being one. It’s like saying, “I like freezers that make ice. Until it’s time for them to stop making ice. And I’m not going to tell the freezer when to stop making ice, or what it should start making instead. Maybe the freezer should start making bran muffins. Yeah, let it try that, and then I’ll tell the freezer whether more bran muffins are really what we need around here.”

My parents never told me what it means to be a gentleman. I think they were too busy paying bills and fixing whatever I broke, insulted, or destroyed. So I just watched my dad and figured I was seeing the gentleman thing in action. I carried those nuggets of gentlemanly behavior with me out of childhood, and when I set off on my young man’s life I forgot every one of them. Who needs to be a gentleman when you can drink 160 proof punch, mumble at girls in a language that doesn’t exist, and puke indiscriminately?

When I outgrew all that, I found myself puzzled about gentlemanly behavior. I did some research. No joking. I discovered that a gentleman did things like hold chairs, hold doors, and hold purses for his lady. He would kiss her hand, kiss her forehead, kiss the back of her neck, and kiss her nose. He would be confident, be humble, be polite, and be willing to punch somebody for her. He would dress well, but not better than her. He would never keep her waiting, but he’d be okay if she kept him waiting. He’d never forget anniversaries or birthdays, and of course he’d learn to play the guitar.

There was a lot more like that.

The thing bothered me about these recitations of gentlemanly behaviors was that all of them are directed at the object of the gentleman’s matchless love. It seemed as if being a gentleman, as opposed to being just a man, springs from how a man treats the woman he loves. That seemed unlikely to me. I figured there were about six billion people on the planet. Am I a gentleman because of how I treat one of them, or because of how I treat 5,999,999,999 of them?

I thought about that for a while, and I tried to separate being a man from being a gentleman. A male human can be a man without being a gentleman. I do not cling to any doubts about that. I’ve known a lot of honest, courageous, faithful, and generous men, enough to demolish all the hot wings a large sports bar—but many of them were not gentlemen. (And by the way, when did it become okay to charge seven bucks for a plate of chicken parts that we used to throw away?)

So you can be a man without being a gentleman, but you can’t be a gentleman without being a man. That’s axiomatic. I think maybe Pythagoras even said it, or one of those other ancient smart fellows. And if that’s true, then I can only be a gentleman if I do something extra, something more than the things required to be a man. Something I can do for everyone I meet, and not just for the woman with whom I share saliva.

A list of those things might be pretty long. I could give everyone I meet a puppy, or a popsicle, or a t-shirt that says “Kiss Me If You Have A Strong Immune System.” I could tell them a joke. I could refrain from singing them a song. I could compliment them on one of their entirely unexceptional physical features. I could give them a massage in a way that’s friendly, and not like an unwashed creep with baggy trousers and an under bite. I could do all those things, but what I’m really looking for is a unifying principle for being a gentleman. What is the theme here?

I thought back to my dad and tried to remember if he gave everybody something. It couldn’t have been much, because his Sears credit card was generally charged to the limit. He didn’t tell jokes or give compliments, and he sure as hell didn’t give massages. He gave us a puppy once, which is a point in his favor. It was a toy poodle as dumb as a chunk of excrement and mean as a snake, so I’ll take that point right back.

I only remember one thing that my dad gave everybody. He did whatever he needed to do to make everybody around him feel comfortable. Even safe. No matter who he was with, they didn’t need to worry about being embarrassed, or left out, or the point of someone else’s joke. He didn’t try to make them happy. In fact, it’s impossible to make some people happy. But they could feel respected, even if they weren’t too respectable themselves when you got down to it. They might even feel that nothing horrible could happen to them right then, because my dad had banned horrible from the room. As a boy, I felt safe when I heard him snoring in his bedroom. If I heard him snore today, I’m sure everybody around would feel safe too.

A gentleman does whatever he needs to do to help the people around him feel comfortable. That’s my working definition. So when in the name of Gregory Peck is it time to stop being a gentleman? I suppose that would be when it’s time for people to stop feeling comfortable. I can think of two times that would be true.

You don’t want people to feel comfortable when they’re about to hurt somebody, and you don’t want them to feel comfortable when they’re about to hurt themselves. If someone is kicking his dog, or screaming at his spouse, then maybe it’s time for the gentleman in you to take a break. And if someone is throwing back his twelfth Wild Turkey shot, or committing professional suicide by doing something rude in his boss’s desk drawer, the gentleman in you should go outside, smoke a cigarette, and play with his iPad.

“I like men who are gentlemen. Until it’s time for them not to be.” When that lady expressed this astounding observation to me, I asked her how a man was supposed to figure out such a thing. She suggested that I might need a flow chart. Well, this isn’t a damned flow chart, but at least now I have something to go by. And now that I think about it, there may be a third situation in which the time arrives to stop being a gentleman. Sometimes the gentleman in you ought to stop outside the bedroom door while the rest of you goes on inside. Everyone’s better off if he hangs out in the living room and plays Wii for a while. I may run that concept past that lady and see what she says.