Archive for Life

Multi-Grains of Truth

My hotel in Beijing is located in what seems to be a shopping district, just a few-minute stroll from the intersection of two wide avenues lined with high-end shops offering mostly Western luxury brands. From my window, I can only see a couple: Chanel and something called BlancPain, which is French for WhiteBread. Little wonder the latter hasn’t caught on in the States, nor that it has in China, where even the most generic cultural detritus of “Western individualism” is processed, packaged, commoditized and sold at low margins to a huge-and-getting-huger middle class starved for identity.

My combined travel time today was over 20 hours, of which I slept only two, but I decided to venture out into the city for dinner, anyway. A few blocks down the road, I stumbled into the Dong’anmen Night Food Market, where for a small handful of yuan one can feast on such delicacies as fried scorpion, silkworm cocoons and sheep’s penis. Having sampled a variety of insects and animal parts on my last trip to China (and having lived to regret it), I kept moving until I found essentially the opposite end of the gustatory spectrum: a vegetarian restaurant.

Fuhuiciyuan is tucked away inside a deceptively large, multipurpose Buddhist compound, which itself is hidden down the sort of dark alley where the red lights above its door might be mistaken for something more salacious. Virtually no English is spoken, and while the menu — which gives off the impression of a catalog — is printed in both Mandarin and English, the descriptions largely eschew ingredients in favor of dubiously specific health benefits. I ordered the hypertension relief.

To be more honest, I have no idea what I ordered. I merely pointed to a nice looking picture and then the nice girl who had waited patiently next to my table while I thumbed through the entire 30-or-so-page menu smiled and typed something into a weird, yellow device that looked exactly like how you’d imagine a PlaySkool cell phone. Not half a minute later, another nice girl brought the menu back and handed it to me again.

Had they run out of the thing in the picture I’d pointed at? There seemed to be no way to know. “Order again?” I tried. She made a hand gesture that I can only assume was intended to be helpful. After a moment, she said, “You … noodles?”

Me … noodles. Hmm.

“Yes?” I answered.

And five minutes later I had noodles — a whole mess of them, Sichuan-style in a spicy pepper sauce that made my nose run and still makes my mouth water thinking about it now. But that’s not all. I also had the first dish I’d pointed to, a colorful medley of … well, of largely unidentifiable vegetables. I spotted some lotus root in there, and surely one of those other things was a mushroom. To be sure, they were all delicious, but they were no match for the noodles.

Me noodles. Me definitely noodles.

After I paid (47 RMB, or roughly $8 for two large servings of delicious and probably healthy if not hypertension-fighting food) and got one of the nice girls to show me how to operate the exit (‘twas neither push nor pull), I headed back for the hotel, still tired from the day’s travel and now from the full belly.

Making my way past Dong’anmen, I was stopped by a homeless woman, probably a migrant farmer from the country living illegally in the city, one of millions willing to give up PRC government entitlements for a chance at Western-style free-market opportunity — which probably tells us as much about communism as it does about the human spirit.

“I’m very hungry,” she said in surprisingly good English. But it was too late. Before I’d even processed the words that came out of her mouth, I’d responded purely out of habit (“Sorry”) and continued pushing through the crowd. See, I come from San Francisco, where dodging the homeless is practically a sport. But in retrospect, I’m honestly not sure which is more shocking: the fact that a woman begged me to buy her a sheep’s penis, or the fact that I turned her down.

I yawned, stuffed my hands in my pockets and charged across the street before the light changed, hurrying past WhiteBread on the way back to my room.

Solve the health care crisis: Eat well

Health insurance premiums continue to rise. Hassles abound for patients and physicians alike. Tens of millions of Americans are uninsured. And these problems are only expected to worsen in coming years. The system is flawed, to be sure. But isn’t the main problem with U.S. healthcare the fact that it’s simply overburdened?

People are sick and getting sicker. In particular, rates of heart disease, Western cancers, type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and osteoperosis only seem to keep climbing.

So many doctors these days are treating symptoms rather than causes. Health care reform, to a large extent, seems to be taking the same approach — ignoring the real underlying problem.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of health care is the role of the patient, and the average patient in the U.S. today is making themselves sick by putting garbage into their body, meal after meal, day after day. Issues of personal responsibility aside, overly processed crap is killing us and costing us a fortune in the process.

The food industry peddles addictive substances for enormous profits, then the health care industry strings along its “patients” (read: customers) with a pill for every ill.

Remember that adage you heard a million times growing up? “You are what you eat.” It was overused for a reason: because it’s true.

Remember that other one? “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”? While it’s a gross simplification, it holds a profound economic truth: They are substitute products for one another.

So here’s the question: Where is the money in educating people, making them healthy and getting them out of “the system”? How do you incentivize health care professionals to steer patients (or potential patients) toward their own substitutes?

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? This appears to be one of those situations where regulatory policy would be a fantastic boon for the public interest — if we could reach some semblance of agreement on what the actual problem is.

Unfortunately, there are wildly varying viewpoints on what is “healthy,” and the science often flies in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, existing educational efforts, such as MyPlate (the new food pyramid), recommend a diet rich in dairy products, which most independent research suggests can be quite harmful. Meanwhile, much of the so-called science is tainted by corporate interests and many of the researchers are guided by personal biases, so it’s difficult to know what to trust.

At the same time, food marketing “facts” and even government regulated nutrition labels are notoriously deceptive. For instance, the label on the front of a can of soup might say it is “98 percent fat free,” but when you turn it around you find that the nutrition label shows it derives 70 percent of its calories from fat. (The FDA and USDA allow companies to calculate fat by weight rather than by calories for front-of-package claims.) The classic example is Pam cooking spray, which says on the front of the can, “Fat Free.” But think about it: What is Pam made out of? Oil, which is 100 percent fat. Dietician and nutritionist Jeff Novick has a brilliant routine about how they get away with this. (It’s definitely worth a watch.)

The water is further muddied by an increasing number of Americans who equate weight loss with health (while they often go hand-in-hand, one does not necessarily imply the other). Long story short, it’s an incredibly complex issue, but one that has extremely far-reaching implications for not only our economic and ecological sustainability, but for the very future of our species.

It’s quite a tangled mess, but if we don’t start teasing it out soon it will only get worse. One way or the other, government probably has a role in that. Obviously I’m not advocating government regulation of what you’re allowed to put in your mouth. I absolutely believe in personal responsibility, but I also happen to think it’s wrong that a company can sell you shit and use taxpayer funded programs to tell you it’s shinola.

Policy doesn’t just fall from the sky. It exists for a reason. Anyone who’s really curious what the “invisible hand” of a completely unfettered market would feed us can get a glimpse of that disturbing reality (and the conditions that led to the establishment of the FDA) by reading Upton Sinclair’s muckraking classic, “The Jungle.” It was written over a hundred years ago, but it couldn’t be more relevant if it was penned just yesterday.

Now pardon me while I get off my soapbox and get back to this 32-oz. cup of Mr. Pibb.

Things to do when you lock yourself out of the house on a Sunday morning in the rain

  • Verify the emptiness of your pockets every fifteen minutes.
  • Locate a dry, secluded spot where you could relieve yourself should it come to that.
  • Imagine a fantastic scenario in which your landlord just happens to be dropping by. And she’s with her best friend, Megan Fox! They went to high school together, see. “Let’s get you out of those wet clothes,” she says. And they brought doughnuts!
  • Identify the sturdiest part of the awning frame from which you could conceivably hang yourself with the dog’s leash.
  • Attempt to fashion a crude lockpick from a piece of wet mulch.
  • Mutter “smug asshole” under your breath when the guy across the street returns home from a dog walk, produces a jangly set of keys and lets himself inside.
  • See an ant. Watch him crawl around. Wonder about his ant life in his ant world. Is he happy? Does he have other ant friends? What kind of relationship does he have with his parents. Name him Roland. Speak to him in a British accent. “It’s bloody awful out ‘ere, innit?” Feel slightly wistful for the good times you shared when Roland is fatally crippled by a raindrop.
  • Ask the dog, “Who’s a good boy?” repeatedly — and really mean it for the first time.

Nothing just happened

Those moments. The ones when you brush ever so lightly against your own mortality. The close calls. When everything slows down like “The Matrix” and the sum total of your life hangs in the balance so clearly that you can pick it up and run your fingers over its craggy surface or roll it around in your hands like some dog’s toy. It’s so small, you think. So … insignificant. But it’s all there: the pitiful little triumphs wadded together among the immense mistakes, or if you’re lucky, vice versa. But if you’re human, chances are you scan the ledger of your life and feel the weight of the bottom line in your gut: You’re operating at a deficit. Suddenly you find yourself bargaining with higher powers — forces you don’t even believe in. Making promises to yourself. Commitments to be a better person. To live well, to love well, to always do the right thing. You awe at the immensity of everything, at the indescribable beauty of the grand illusion, and you thank the universe for giving you whatever tiny role you play in this incomprehensible, maddening, twisted, ridiculous, excruciating and oh-my-god-so-unbelievably-precious continuum called life.

And then the moment passes. Neurotransmitter hits receptor and your heart drums on. And so you move forward, continuing to do all the same stupid shit you did before, just like nothing ever happened.

Because, as far as anyone can tell, nothing ever did.

Double-decker slices of life


“Mommy, I went boom in my pants.”

In 1978, my mother retired her well-worn copy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and re-married, giving her hand to a professional wrestler who was also a high school football coach and whose mission in life seemed to be to confirm every stereotype anyone had ever heard about New York Italians. Flaws aside, he had an Erik Estrada smile, and so mere months after we’d run into him at a matinee of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” they said their vows in a small backyard ceremony and moved us to the only neighborhood where they could afford a four-bedroom house.

It was a cookie-cutter subdivision aptly and depressingly named Four Winds. Even at a young age, I always imagined it signified that by moving there, your hopes and dreams for the future were officially scattered to the four winds. Our new house was located in  Brandon, Fla., a shitty little cowtown that was a suburb of Tampa, and it was in Brandon that I went on to spend many of what they call your “formative years.” I say this because when I finally left there 10 years later, I felt completely unformed as a human being.

Like many small towns across the country — perhaps the world — it was devoid of culture. We had a two-screen movie theater and a dilapidated bowling alley, but otherwise the landscape was an endless grid of cow pastures and churches and identical housing subdivisions (three of my best friends during this time lived in the exact same house a few blocks from each other). Essentially, it was “Pleasant Valley Sunday” only without the killer guitar riff and sweet vocal harmonies. Driving through Brandon in 1978 felt eerily like watching Fred Flintstone run through his house, as the exact same background passed by again and again and again.

Aside from a single McDonald’s and one of the last remaining Burger Chefs (look it up), there was just one restaurant in town. Recently opened, Babe’s was a no-frills pizza parlor with a super-creepy logo featuring a hollow-eyed toddler in a diaper tossing a pizza. Defying decades of marketing wisdom, it quickly became the de facto post-game destination for Little League teams.

For years, every Saturday after soccer, my parents and I — and occasionally my sister — would crowd into black vinyl booths alongside teammates and other parents to munch on Babe’s signature Double-Decker pizza while the kids marveled at the model train cars chugging around the ceiling and the adults held trial for whoever hadn’t mowed their lawn in more than a week.

That was some 25 to 30 years ago.

Tonight, for the first time in ages, I went to Babe’s. I have no idea why. As I was leaving the parking garage at work, I decided I would eat out and Babe’s,  inexplicably, was the first place that popped into my head.

So I drove, roughly 15 miles — past the tuxedo shop I managed in high school, past the strip mall where I got arrested for shoplifting, past the apartment complex where I first kissed a girl, through the intersection where I had my first car accident — and parked in the back, just like we always did back when I was a passenger and the idea of driving a car still seemed like the most glorious freedom in the world. (It is, you guys. It is.)

The twentysomething waitress pointed me to a table in the corner and asked if I’d ever been there before. I smiled, maybe just to myself, and said, “Yes, thanks.” I ordered a medium double-decker with pepperoni, green pepper and black olives, which I’m pretty sure is the only thing I’ve ever ordered at Babe’s in 32 years.

When I was a kid, my stepdad and I would split a double-decker. Four slices each. He usually couldn’t finish his half, but I always did. It was a point of pride for me. I couldn’t outdo him at much of anything, but when it came to eating, I was the king of the castle.

After two slices tonight, I was stuffed. That’s when I posted this:

Twenty-two years ago, I scored 780 out of 800 on the math section of the SAT.

Tonight, I couldn’t figure out why I was so full after just two slices of double-decker pizza.

Moments later, a friend who’d seen the post texted me — coincidentally, she’d gotten the exact same math score. We started discussing SAT performance and I admitted to her that my score on the reading and writing portions (back then, they were called “Verbal”) was embarrassingly low.

Mainly I confessed this because I thought I’d already mentioned it to her before. (Apparently not.) It’s always a difficult thing to explain.

I’m an editor. I’m a writer. I got a liberal arts degree. I chose this path, despite — and probably in spite of — the fact that it led me away from my natural gifts.

“You love a stuggle,” my friend texted. “Correction,” I replied. “I *used* to love a struggle.”

In 10th grade Geometry class, my teacher wrote out an “extra credit” problem on the board — I’m pretty sure it was something about defining the curvature of a projection using a Lie bracket, but it’s hard to remember exactly — and told us that anyone who could come up with the solution would get an A for the semester. I spent the rest of the period scribbling in my notebook and, just before the bell rang, raised my hand with the answer.

When the teacher responded with nothing but a wide-eyed look of shock, a classmate named Scott — the biggest bully at my school, a guy who wasn’t friendly to anyone, a guy who I’d watched break the nose of the second-biggest bully at my school in 6th grade, resulting in a geyser of blood that covered the lunch room floor — turned to me and shouted, “Man! I wish I had your brain!”

These days when the subject of intellect comes up, I often tell people, “I’ve never been smart; I’ve just always worn glasses.” I started saying it to be humble, but over the years I’ve come to believe it.

But you know what? I think I was probably pretty damn smart at one point.

And maybe that’s why it killed me to discover, via the SAT, that I was a profoundly mediocre English student. Maybe that’s why I chose to turn my back on math, which came naturally to me, in favor of language, which seemed to elude me entirely.

Or maybe I just wanted to piss off my dad, the accountant.

Either way, here I am. Forty years old, stuffed full of pizza and working as a mid-level editor at a fading publication in a dying industry. It would be extremely convenient if I still loved a struggle.

When you’re young, running around soccer fields and scarfing down pizza with your family, you just assume that as you get older you’ll also get better.

And once you finally get older, you realize you don’t even know what “better” means.

I’m kinder at 40 than I was at 15. I’m more generous. I’m more autonomous, certainly. More open-minded. More compassionate. Honest. Forgiving. Patient. Sincere. Appreciative.

Does that make me better?

I have no idea. I do know this: I’m nowhere near as smart as I used to be. I’m not as friendly or funny, either. I’m way more tired, and slower of mind and body. I’m almost devoid of energy or enthusiasm. And, also (this is a big one), hope.

Also, I can’t eat nearly as much pizza.

Does that make me worse?

Again, no idea.

Maybe it does. Maybe I peaked at 15. Maybe that was the best I’ll ever be, and the 25 years since have been nothing but a long, slow decline.

But at least I can drive now. And the pizza was fucking phenomenal.

Better Safe And Sorry

If you’re a man who happens to be age 40 or over and you experience chest pains, do not dilly-dally, they say. Go immediately to the Emergency Room. This is not a drill; this is the real thing.

Health care industry workers take this particular symptom so seriously, in fact, that one time years ago, well before I was 40, I called my Primary Care Physician about a digestive issue and as soon as I mentioned feeling something — anything — in my chest, the nurse urged me to hang up and dial 911.

I’ve suffered from dyspepsia, reflux and a host of related upper-gastrointestinal issues my entire adult life, and as a result I’m intimately familiar with what it feels like to have simple, or even severe, indigestion.

So in May when I felt some discomfort in my chest that was unlike anything I’d experienced before, I panicked a bit. I’m not overweight, I don’t have high blood pressure and I have no real family history of cardiac disease, but I don’t live the healthiest lifestyle, either, and I’ve been a cigarette smoker for the better part of 17 years.

With that in mind, along with my age (40), I decided I should heed conventional wisdom. As it says in one of the medical books I pore over frequently (because, let’s be honest, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac), “Any adult who suddenly experiences discomfort in the chest must assume that it has something to do with the heart and act accordingly.” So off I went.

I drove up to the ER, walked inside, approached the check-in window and began explaining my situation to the woman behind the counter. Now, I work in a newsroom where we’ve grown jaded and unimpressed by ordinary events, such as murder, violence and corruption, so it’s only when something truly remarkable happens — say, a gunman is holding a hostage in the local elementary school parking lot, or a tanker explodes on the freeway killing two police officers — that we really even bother to wake up. In those rare electric moments, you can literally see a palpable energy spreading across the room like “The Wave” at a football game. When I uttered the words “chest pain” at the ER check-in window, I felt the spark of that same energy and watched as it flashed across their faces and shot through their limbs. Suddenly the room was all abuzz, and its meaning was clear: “Holy shit, we’ve got ourselves a bonafide emergency!”

I was fast-tracked to the ER. “We can fill out your paperwork later,” said the nurse who escorted me urgently to my bed. Without delay, another nurse hurriedly began hooking me up to everything in sight. Electrodes were attached to my chest and an IV was jabbed into my arm. My heart rate and blood pressure were checked. Blood was drawn. A chest X-ray was taken. An electrocardiogram was performed. My condition was stable.

Thirty minutes later, a doctor shuffled in. “You’re fine,” he said. He suggested it was indigestion. I respectfully disagreed. He recommended an endoscopy. I took it under advisement. He sent me on my way.

And that, more or less, was that. I trusted conventional wisdom. I consulted a doctor. I explained my symptoms and I was whisked away into a whirlwind of health care procedures that, presumably, were in my best interest. And then I was given a clean bill of health, or at least a reasonably clean one, and dismissed. “Nothing to worry about,” was the verdict. Who was I to argue? The doctor knows best.

Sure enough, within a few hours, the weird pressure in my chest was completely gone. “I guess I’m fine, after all,” I thought. “Awesome!”

And it was. Except …

Two weeks later the bills started showing up. Bills. Plural.

I got one from the hospital itself for $623. I got another one from the doctor I saw for $89.54. I got a third from my Primary Care Physician for $25. I got a fourth from another doctor for $27.64. Total cost out of my pocket: $765.18.

The kicker? None of them — not one — really explains exactly what it’s for. “Services rendered,” one says. By comparison, another that reads “Emergency visit” is acutely specific. Other charges listed on my various bills include “Drugs,” “Laboratory” and “Emergency Room.”

Now, I’m the first person to admit that I don’t know shit about how health insurance works. But this seems unnecessarily convoluted and (intentionally?) inscrutable.

I was there for less than an hour. I saw two nurses and spoke to one doctor. I did as I was told. I trusted them.

I have health insurance through my employer, and from what people who know about this stuff have told me, my coverage is pretty good. I realize a trip to the ER isn’t exactly “preventative” care, but considering the circumstances I’d think this would be something that would be fully (or, at least, mostly) covered.

Each year, I pay over $1,000 before taxes out of my paycheck and my employer graciously contributes something like three times that amount. In exchange for that, I get “coverage.”

What does “coverage” mean? I don’t have the slightest idea. But what it appears to mean is that my employer and I make a substantial “loan” to an insurance company, and then if I get sick they go ahead and put that money toward the parts of my bills that they find agreeable and then charge me for the rest. But if I don’t get sick — or sick enough, anyway — they simply pocket the change.

I’m sure it’s more complicated than that. I’m certain of it. What I don’t understand is why.

Why am I paying money to doctors I never saw? Why am I getting four different bills for one ER visit? Why are there 19 different nebulously designated items on my various bills? And how much of these unexplained costs are the result of nothing more than the fact that we’ve created a system that is needlessly complex?

I don’t have any answers for any of that. Like I said, I’m clueless about this stuff.

But here’s one thing I know: Given my current financial situation, if I experience severe chest pains tomorrow, I hope it’s no big deal because I’m not going to the ER. I don’t trust the system anymore. I don’t trust conventional wisdom.

The same book I referenced above goes on to say, “If it turns out to be a false alarm, you’ve lost nothing. But if it indeed was the heart, you may have saved your life!”

True enough on that last count.

But the first part? Not so much.

Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo

Her Grayness

Cats: They don’t like you, either. I respect that.

This is a cat. You probably recognized that. They’re very common house pets. This one is named Millie, but she also answers to the following nicknames: Mill, Millip, Millicent, Millejandro and Her Grayness.

Millie is 11 years old. She enjoys playing fetch with wadded up ATM receipts, chasing flashlights projected onto the floor and sucking her thumb. Like me, she doesn’t care for most people. Unlike me, she positively abhors cheese.

She belongs to my ex. When we were together, I lived with Millie for about six years. She was slow to warm up to me, but finally gave in. To this day, I’m the only person other than my ex who can touch — or even approach — Millie without her growling, hissing and/or swatting. Sometimes when the vet tries to handle her, she gets so angry she literally poops.

She’s just not a people cat. I can respect that.

Which is why, when my ex received a two-month fellowship overseas, she asked if I’d be willing to let Millie move in for a while.

So here she is, stretching out on my couch, sleeping in my sock drawer and throwing up under my bed, just like old times. It’s been a lot like reconnecting with an old friend. The first couple of days we were both tentative, and then pretty soon it was like we’d never been apart. Me and Millie. Millie and me.

But we have been apart — for nearly three years. And certain things are different now.

Back then she had a “brother” and a “sister.” Buddy and Beeble were the two cats I brought to the relationship. About four years ago, Buddy suffered renal failure and I had to put him to sleep. Beeble is an outdoor cat now, living at a friend’s house, where she frolics in the garden.

Millie hated sharing space with the other cats — she isn’t a cat cat, either — but eventually learned to tolerate their existence and mostly just ignored them.

When it comes to humans, though, Millie never ignores. While she hates to have her personal space invaded, she always wants to be around people. It’s like she doesn’t trust them and wants to keep an eye on them. She’ll follow you around the house for hours, watching as you wash the dishes or do the laundry or play a video game — you know, just in case. But as soon as you look at her, she tenses up. And if you make a move in her direction, she’s gone.

Back when we lived together, I used to play guitar, a behavior which Millie found exceedingly suspicious. I’d sit on the couch and strum along while Millie would perch herself on an armrest and watch, wide-eyed, trying to get her head around what exactly I was trying to accomplish with that noisy contraption.

Once we’d established this routine, I started singing songs to her. Her theme song, a simple but soulful number that my ex made up, consisted almost entirely of an awkward but catchy chorus that went, “Millie … she does ne’er like cheese.”

My specialty, though, was changing the lyrics of popular songs so that they told stories about the cat and her unique personality. The only one I remember at the moment was a reworking of “Candy Says” by The Velvet Underground that went like this:

Millie says,
“I’ve come to hate most cheeses.”
“And I don’t think that baby Jesus …”
“… would disagreeeee.”

These are the kinds of stupid things you do with your pets when nobody is watching. At least subconsciously, you figure, “It’s only a cat. It won’t judge me.” But with Millie, it’s different. You always get the sense she’s looking at you like you’re completely ridiculous.

I was reminded of that look this morning when I went to clean out Millie’s litter box. Back when we lived together, the litter box was one of my daily chores, and I crawled out of bed every morning to take care of it without even opening my eyes. One morning, though, I woke up with a tune in my head, some stray melody left over from a dream that I somehow managed to bring back into the waking world with me.

As I stood there scooping shit into a plastic grocery bag, I saw Millie sitting on the washing machine, watching me intently with a look that said, “Whatever you do, human, don’t engage in any nonsense. Because I loathe nonsense.”

And so my hand was forced. I started singing aloud to the tune in my head, a sort of country-ish jig that, in retrospect, is nearly identical to the melody from “Particle Man” by They Might Be Giants. The words that came out of my barely awake brain were as follows:

Bag of poo. Bag of poo.
Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo.
Buddy’s poo, and Beeble’s poo, and Millie’s poo, too.
Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo.

Brilliant, no? I never bothered to add a second verse, because why mess with perfection, right?

Anyway, after that, I sang that song every morning for at least a year before I went my way while my ex took Millie and went hers.

I sang it again today, for the first time since around May of 2007, and I suppose I’ll be singing it every morning through the end of July when Millie goes home. It’s no longer technically accurate, of course — today’s grocery bag contained the poo of only a single feline.

But that’s when two things occurred to me. First, that while I really miss Buddy, I don’t miss his poo one bit. And second … I feel pretty much the exact same way about my marriage.

R.I.P., my friend

This morning I got a phone call from an old friend I hadn’t heard from in at least a year. It’s been so long, I didn’t recognize the tone in her voice. “Hey!” I said, excitedly. “Hey,” she responded flatly. “What’s up?!” I nearly yelled.

Moments later, my voice matched hers. Hushed. Trembling. Serious.

“Trey hung himself,” she said.

And the world kept spinning without me.


I don’t mean to be crass, but this isn’t my first rodeo.

In July ‘06, one of the best friends I’ve ever had threw himself off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Mike was a brilliant writer and musician, possibly the smartest man I ever knew and certainly one of the funniest. He was eccentric and often standoffish, but had a good heart and a soft spot for his dog Rudie.

He was known for pouring his heart out while on stage and hiding it completely while off. He was also known for his long, spindly fingers, which not only made him a gifted guitarist, but also gave him the ability to hold a cigarette, a beer and a cocktail all in the same hand (which was pretty much his standard appearance). And he was known for his thrift-store-professional fashion sense, which equated to wearing second-hand sport coats and dress slacks with retro T-shirts and used Hush Puppies.

One time our company — we worked together — threw a staff party at the beach, and everyone was stunned when Mike showed up. I was stunned because he showed up at all. Everyone else was stunned because he was dressed in a suit. On the beach.

Because he was Mike. And that’s how Mike dressed.

I’ve almost never looked up to anyone, but I looked up to him. He was pretty much my hero.

He couldn’t fly, though.


Suicides are weird.

They make people do odd things.

Every time one happens, it’s only a matter of time before friends and (mostly) acquaintances start airing the deceased’s dirty laundry.

“You know he was in an abusive relationship, right?”

“I heard she had a serious drinking problem.”

“I saw him doing blow in the bathroom at that show last month.”

“She told me once that her mother suffered from severe depression.”

This phenomenon drives me nuts.

First of all, have some fucking respect. Second of all, how does knowing any of this information help me? I don’t know for a fact that any of these things were what caused this tragedy, but even if I did the fact remains that my friend is still gone.

I think people just want to believe it can’t happen to them. They’re more comfortable when they know the suicidal person had bigger problems — or, at least, different problems — from their own. So they talk about ‘em.

I suppose I don’t blame them. I wish I could believe in all that. Dealing with these things would be so much easier if I could.

But I can’t. Because I’ve been there.


My cousin was the first suicide I had to cope with. Mike was second. Trey, naturally, is third.

Through those, I’ve noticed one other thing about the way people react.

For whatever reason, people love to attach themselves to suicides. Even suicides that barely affect them. It’s as if they want to be victims.

Or, more likely, they want people to feel sorry for them.

I saw this the most when Mike died. Because he was a musician of some renown, local scenesters came out of the woodwork to eulogize, mourn and bask in the martyrdom of my friend, who in my rage at this development I dubbed the Patron Saint of Tampa Drunks.

Fuck those people. Their loss, if it existed at all, was theirs to keep. But when they broke down sobbing over someone they barely knew or fainted over his casket, all I saw were opportunists exploiting the death of my friend. My friend for whom I was feeling real, genuine grief — grief that I still feel to this day, while those attention whores sit at the bar sharing a laugh.


I’ll be honest. Trey and I had drifted apart.

For about eight years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we were tight. We were part of a group of friends roughly a dozen strong who embraced their nerdiness. We were computer programmers and creative writers, theater geeks and political wonks, chess players and D&D dungeon crawlers.

We didn’t have much, but we had each other. And we stuck together through thick and thin. Partly because nobody else would have us, but also partly because we shared that special bond that only outcasts can ever know.

In high school, Trey was an actor, and he would talk at length about his chosen craft during the keg parties we’d throw at our friends’ houses, in empty lots and underneath bridges. In college, he became a DJ, spinning records at the local alternative danceteria until one night when he took so much LSD he became convinced he was in the cockpit of a alien spacecraft and his turntables were the controls. (Disaster, of course, ensued.) Not long after we graduated, Trey joined the Navy and started traveling the world. Pretty soon, contact with him began to dwindle until it disappeared entirely.

He met a sweet girl and got married. They moved back to the Tampa area and we reconnected occasionally, whenever time allowed. Eventually they had two kids — both boys — and Trey got a job as an ER nurse. There was almost nothing he loved more than telling stories about the lives he’d saved (or helped save) in the emergency room.

The last time I saw him was over a year ago. He called me out of the blue and said he was in Gainesville, which is where we went to college. “I’m at Caribbean Spice!” he said, naming a so-small-it-barely-exists eatery that we frequented during our school years.

“Dude! Have some carrot cake for me!” I said, remembering how much I loved their dessert.

About two hours later, my phone rang again. It was Trey. He was downstairs, standing outside my office. I went out to meet him and after we hugged, he handed me a small package.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“I brought you some carrot cake, man.”


While his influence will always loom almost as large as his hulking frame, Trey barely existed for me in my everyday life as an adult. I heard from him maybe twice a year and saw him even less. From that perspective, I don’t have the right to pretend I’m as affected by his loss as his family or friends or even his more recent co-workers. After hearing the news today, I gently replaced the phone’s handset, took a brief moment to collect myself, and went to a staff meeting. Over the course of the day, I mentioned it only to a small handful of my closest friends.

Maybe it’s just that I hate attention, but I refuse to publicly parade around my grief over his tragic death.

But goddamnit, it’s fucking hard.

Because I’ve really missed that guy for a long time. And now? Now it’s forever.

No, this isn’t my first. Or even my second.

But it never gets easier.

Rubbing some dirt on it

The sound of my own voice reverberates in my head as I catch my balance, startled as I am by the desperation of the primal bark that just involuntarily escaped through my lips from somewhere deep inside. I pause for a moment to collect myself, then lean slowly down to rub the spot on my shin where tomorrow I’ll sport a nasty bruise. I press gently but firmly with my thumbs and wince as the pain shoots through my leg, and I can tell right away it’s going to be a bad one. It feels awful, but then it feels good to feel anything at all.

I’m playing soccer on a crisp January afternoon, while a sinking sun reflects off the glass skyscrapers looming just across the river as if it’s checking itself in the mirror before calling it a day. I’ve just been relieved of the ball while trying to make a move I’ve made a thousand times before, one that used to work every time but has seen a dwindling success rate in recent months. I shake my head and start slowly back in the opposite direction.

It’s not that I’m slower, I think. It’s that I’m less quick. Somehow, at this moment, at least in my mind, there is a difference.

There is also a metaphor.

I am a grown man, playing against kids in a kids’ game. The only other player my age, who’s lagging behind the action along with me, glances over and catches the grimace on my face. He nods, knowingly. “It’s tough,” he says, and I muster a small laugh of acknowledgment.

“At our age, you get going in one direction and it’s hard to change.”

He’s right, of course. He’s talking about soccer, but I’m thinking about life.

Either way, though. He’s right.


I’m leaning on a bar sipping a Jack ‘n’ Coke, taking long, deliberate drags from a Marlboro Light and staring intently at the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

She’s a new hire at the office, and somehow, inexplicably, she’s agreed to meet me for a drink — in the middle of the night, no less — at a dive halfway between our apartments that any sane person would be afraid to enter.

“It only gets faster,” I tell her. I’m talking about time, of course, because she has mentioned that the previous year seemed to fly by for her.

She’s seven years my junior, and I can tell by the look on her face when I talk — or shout, rather, over the blaring redneck music and bleeping electronic dart boards — that she’s only ever dated boys, not men.

“It seems like it’s building up momentum, but really it’s all about perception,” I say, and it becomes immediately clear that she’s intrigued — if not by me, at least by the idea of being on a date with someone who discusses things like perception and the concept of time.

“Think about it,” I continue. “When you’re three years old, one year is a third of your entire life experience. In relative terms, it seems huge.”

“But when you’re 30 … a year is nothing,” I go on. “It’s merely one-thirtieth of everything you know. Barely over three percent of your lifetime.”

She smiles and looks deeply into my eyes and I know with as much certainty as I’ve ever known anything that the hook has been set.

Eight years, three apartments, one house, three cats, two jobs, a dozen trips, a million laughs, a hundred thousand tears and a blink of an eye later, I hand her a check for $20,000 and she drives away.


“Things That Weren’t Built In A Day” for $200, Alex

The Great Wall

I am sooooo high.

I was hunkering down in the first-class lounge at the Beijing airport with my laptop and a bottle of Johnnie Walker while I waited to catch a plane back to the States when it occurred to me. “The fact that I talked my way in here tells me either Eastern cultures find social ineptitude irresistibly charming or my charisma is temporarily bolstered by an absolutely insatiable need for social contact.”

Indeed, you can’t fully grasp the meaning of the word “alienated” until you’ve gone two weeks without any significant human interaction beyond drawing stick figures on cocktail napkins or smiling and nodding while pointing at menu items. Decades of take-out fried rice orders had led me to believe communication with the people of China would be a lot more conveniently numbered than it turned out to be.

Innocent attempts to further bridge this cultural chasm could lead to results as mildly inconvenient as turning down the wrong street or as embarrassing and unfortunate as inadvertently propositioning a hooker. (Yes, really.)

After two weeks of awkwardly navigating the social byways of foreign tourism everywhere from the bustling streets of Hong Kong to the hillside cave-slums of Xi’an, I concluded my journey with a visit to the Great Wall of China.

They say the Great Wall is the only man-made object you can see from outer space (mercifully, they specify “man-made,” thereby disqualifying my forehead), which gives you a pretty good idea that this is one heck of a long wall. In fact, it stretches on for about 5,500 miles — almost twice the width of the entire United States.

What they don’t tell you is how high it goes. On my last full day in China, I visited a well-preserved, 300-plus-year-old section of the wall in Mutianyu (about 40 miles outside Beijing) that winds up, down and around the area’s mountainous landscape. I had to take a skyride just to get to the base of the wall, and once I got to that point, both directions offered a daunting uphill climb.

But, hey, I’m pretty fit for a chain-smoking alcoholic, so what the hell?

To reach the wall’s highest point, I trudged up steep inclines and haphazard steps for nearly 45 minutes without taking a break. By the time I reached the top watchtower, my clothes were soaked through with sweat, my face and arms were covered with dead bugs, and my legs and lungs were burning with the fire of conviction. I slumped down on the stone and the sun beat down, basking me in its triumphant glow. Moments later, a couple of other tourists climbed wearily over the threshold, and we exchanged tired glances and mustered half-smiles that said, “We made it!”

It was glorious.

Five days later I’m sitting at a desk in a long row of similar desks, quietly filling out time sheets and approving expense reports. It probably goes without saying that this sort of juxtaposition affords one a fair amount of what people like to call “perspective.”