The catnip candy cane and the unimpressed cat

a cat rolling on floorSo I’m on the phone with my friend, Brenda. And she says, “You have a cat, don’t you? I thought I remembered you saying you have a cat.”

“Yep,” I say, laughing. “I sure do. I am indeed the proud owner of a cat.”

“Hey!”

I look up to see my cat staring at me from across the room. He motions to me with his claw. “Get over here.”

I can’t, I mouth, cupping my hand over the receiver. I’m on the phone.

“Hang up the damn phone and get your ass over here,” my cat says. “Now! I want to talk to you.”

And meanwhile, Brenda’s babbling about some dog she owned in 1986. I think she said its name was Salt, or something.

“Brenda, I’m so sorry,” I say, interrupting her, “but I’ve got to go.”

“Right now?” Brenda asks. “We’re right in the middle of a conversation. I was just telling you about the time that Pepper lifted his leg on Mama’s toupee. She kept smelling doggy pee, and she couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. She thought it might be her armpits, and she kept burying her nose under both her arms to sniff them, but all she could smell was regular old-lady B.O., and not pee. It was driving her crazy!”

“I thought your dog’s name was Salt?” I ask.

“My dog’s name is Salt,” Brenda says.

“But you just said your dog’s name is Pepper?”

“Pepper is the dog I had in 1986,” Brenda says. “You know that. My goodness, it’s like you’re not listening to a word I’m saying.”

“Huh? What’s that?” I ask, looking at my cat and swallowing. His eyes are narrowed, and I can tell my delay is making him livid.

“I said it’s like you’re not listening to a word I’m saying!” Now it’s Brenda who sounds livid.

“Hang up the phone,” my cat says, his voice eerily calm. “Now.”

“Bye, Brenda,” I say, as I hang up the phone. I can her her screaming violent, rage-fueled obscenities as I set down the receiver. That woman does not like to be cut off when she’s talking about her pets.

“Get over here,” my cat says, motioning me over to the couch.

I take a deep, uncertain breath. Then, I stand up and saunter over to the couch.

“Have a seat.”

I sit down on one end of the couch while my cats sits on the other, his tail twitching manically.

“Now,” my cat says, “remind me what you said a moment ago. You know, the part about you being a proud pet owner?”

I swallow again. Suddenly, my throat feels dry.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” I say, my voice cracking. “I swear. All I said was that I was the proud owner of a cat.”

“And therein lies the problem.” My cat closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. My chest tightens as I await his next syllable. Already, I can feel a line of cold sweat beading across my brow.

“Let’s get something straight,” my cat says. “Right here and right now. And I’m only going to tell you once, so you listen good. You don’t own me. You understand? I own you. You got that, you miserable bag of puke? I own you!”

“I’m sorry,” I try to say, stammering. “I didn’t mean–”

“Shut up!” my cat says, raising his paw. “I’m not through with you. You’re nothing. You’re the rancid scum that pools at the bottom of my milk dish when it’s left sitting out for too long. You’re the flimsy guts of a disemboweled mouse that I left sitting on the back porch. You’re more useless than that cheap-ass catnip candy cane you bought me for Christmas from the $1 store. And what a joke that was, by the way. What kind of a tightwad, scumbag bastard buys Christmas gifts from the $1 store?”

“Cat, please,” I say, my voice taking on a higher pitch. My body’s trembling, and my throat constricts as I talk, which cuts off my words. Either I’m really getting worked up, or my cat allergies are kicking in.

I’m not sure why I have a cat when I’m allergic to him, but he’s never appreciated any of the sacrifices I’ve made. I made a special trip to buy him that catnip candy cane, and it pains me to learn that he hated it.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” my cat says. “Don’t you ever go around telling people you own me. You got it? You will never own me. I would never condescend to call you my owner, or even my friend. You’re nothing to me. You’re just the sniveling coward who fills my food dish and cleans out the litter box. You’re nothing to me but a manservant. All you’re good for is fluffing my pillows and maybe running a comb through my fur when I’m starting to shed. But beyond that, you’re a withered, pathetic excuse for a man.”

“Cat, I’m sorry!” I say, tears springing to my eyes. It hurts to hear him speak so callously. I thought our relationship was stronger than this.

“Silence!” my cat says. “I ought to drag you outside right now and break your stupid kneecaps with a tire iron, you miserable pipsqueak. Or maybe I’ll just slice you up with my claws so that you look like shredded cheese. You’ll look like you’ve been dropped through a helicopter rotor by the time I’m finished with you, you classless bum.”

“I’m so sorry, Cat,” I say, wiping snot on the back on my sleeve. Whether it’s emotions or allergies, my nose is gushing. “I didn’t mean to insinuate that I owned you, or that you’re somehow beneath me. Sometimes I just blurt things without thinking.”

“Damn right you weren’t thinking, you gutless turd! And you’ll never make the same mistake again, will you?”

“I promise,” I say, sniffing. “You’re the most important feline in my life, Cat. I don’t want us to fight.”

“Quit sniveling,” my cat says, glaring. “You’re making me sick. It’s despicable.”

“Cat,” I say, “can I ask you a question?”

“Must you?”

“You’re always so mad at me lately. You hiss at me for even the slightest perceived offense.”

My cat’s eyes widen. “That’s because you deserve it, you wretched fool!”

I swallow. “I know I’ve apologized for this before, but Cat … will you ever forgive me for having you neutered?”

My cat sucks in a quick breath. “I said I never want to discuss it,” he says, his eyes burning like branding irons into the depths of my soul.

“I know,” I say. “But clearly, you’re still very resentful. I just wondered–”

My cat holds up a paw, with his blood-stained claws protruding like Wolverine’s terrifying blades. “Not another word, you imbecile, or I’ll slice you up into human confetti. Your guts will be raining upon guests at a New Year’s Eve party when I get through with you.”

“OK. All right.” I rise from the couch and take a cautious step backward. “I’m so sorry, Cat. I swear. I’ll get you some milk now. Does kitty want some milk?”

“You’re goddamn right kitty wants some milk, you insufferable dumb ass! And bring me a handful of those crunchy treats while you’re at it. They help me fight tartar and bad breath.”

“You got it.” Though I’m still shaken, I cross the room to the kitchen to retrieve the milk and treats.

As I leave him alone in the living room, my cat stares blankly at the wall. Ever so slowly, the rage recedes from his eyes, and a dull, glassy stare takes its place.

Although he thinks he’s alone, he’s not aware that I’m watching him. Even through all of our trials and escalated conversations, I have nothing but fondness for him in my heart.

And as he extends his hind leg to lick it, a remorseful pang of guilt surges through me … because as he licks he gently nuzzles that place near the base of his tail — that now-vacant spot where his family jewels used to be.

Don’t throw garbage in there! That’s a decorative wastebasket

man daydreaming

Sure, I may have a string of failed relationships, but it’s not like I’m the one who’s the problem.

Roberta, I hope you’re having a good evening. Thank you so much for coming. I’ve been wanting to have you over to my apartment for quite a while.

I also hope you enjoyed your dinner. Sorry I burned the fish sticks! I’m just not used to baking them in the oven. I usually use the microwave, but then they get mushy. I always try to put forth a little more effort when I have a woman over. But you could probably tell that from the sprig of parsley and the slice of lemon I laid over the fish sticks when I served them.

Next time you’re over, I’ll use a timer. Either that, or I can whip up some Pasta Roni. It’s really good if you add a can of tuna fish. Then it becomes a more sophisticated version of Tuna Helper. And if I want to get really fancy, I’ll sometimes substitute a can of Atlantic pink salmon for the tuna.

I was thinking about doing my own cooking podcast, or maybe a series of YouTube videos. But I wouldn’t want people copying my recipes. Maybe I should self-publish a cookbook, first. I have so many money-making ideas, I just don’t know where to start. I’m ambitious like that. And ambition’s attractive. Aren’t I right?

Anyway, I’m so glad you’re here, sitting on my couch. Can you tell I cleaned up? Only this morning, there was a dirty pair of underwear right where you were sitting. Laundry Day isn’t until Wednesday, so I shoved the underwear underneath the cushion. You’re sitting on it, but you can’t see it. Pretty clever, huh?

So if you drop some loose change down the cushions, be careful as you feel around. There may be a condom or two down there, too. I don’t know — I’ve never lifted the cushion to see what’s under there. For all I know, there could be a mummified cat. Mine disappeared two years ago. You would have liked him. He was precious. I still have his litter box in my bedroom as a sort of shrine. I haven’t touched it since the day he vanished. For all I know, all his turds are mummified, too.

Anyway, before this evening gets serious and I dim the lights, I wanted to ask you something important:

Did you happen to use the bathroom earlier?

I’m not asking because there was a funky odor, or anything. In fact, I’m not even sure why I’m asking. I know for a fact you were in there, because you excused yourself during dinner. I could even hear you peeing, though I tried not to listen. I was trying to eat, and bathroom noises ruin my appetite.

I know — it’s a little awkward that the bathroom is located right next to the dining-room table. But I’m not the dumb-ass architect who laid out the apartment. If you ask me, dining rooms and bathrooms should be located in separate counties. No one wants to eat next to a full view of a toilet. But sometimes I light a cinnamon candle in there, and it gives me a craving for Christmas cookies, even though it’s July. So that’s kind of weird. Whenever someone serves me cookies at a Christmas party, all I can think about is my toilet.

It’s also too bad the bathroom fan broke. It’s useful not only for removing unpleasant odors, but also for masking private sounds. That’s why I could hear you peeing. If we’re going to keep dating, then I’ll have to get the landlord to fix the fan right away. The way you drink wine, you’re going to be in the bathroom every five minutes, and you sound like an overflowing stream surging toward a waterfall. (In other words, you seem like a lush. No offense.)

The reason I’m asking whether you used the bathroom is because I saw a wadded-up Kleenex in the wastebasket. I know I didn’t put it there, and unless my mummified cat somehow leapt back to life and wormed his way out from under the couch cushions, you’re the only obvious suspect.

The thing is — and I hesitate to ask — but I’m going to need you to go the bathroom, fish out the Kleenex, and flush it down the toilet.

See, the wastebasket isn’t really a wastebasket. I have it for decorative purposes only. I never intended for people to throw garbage in there. You should have known that, because the wastebasket lacks a bag. Nobody’s supposed to toss garbage into a bag-less wastebasket. It just isn’t done in polite society. I’m not sure if you’ve ever taken a course in manners, but you should at least be familiar with the works of Peggy Post. She used to write an etiquette column for Good Housekeeping. Not that I’m an ardent reader of Good Housekeeping. It’s just that my ex used to keep them next to the toilet, and they’re great to thumb through if you haven’t had enough fiber and are taking longer than normal to do your business.

Speaking of etiquette, I know that I’m the host and that I should pick up the Kleenex if it bothers me so much. I’m not one to inconvenience my guests. I didn’t even ask you to remove your shoes prior to coming inside. But that was more for my sake, as you appear to be wearing shoes without socks, which doubles the likelihood of your having foot odor. I like you and everything, but I don’t want to have your disgusting, pungent feet tromping all over my carpet. I just vacuumed two weeks ago, and I can’t afford to have it shampooed after you leave. So if you insist on going sock-less, then I’m going to insist that your shoes remain on. If you want to get comfortable later and make out, maybe you can put your feet in a plastic sack.

But anyway … if you could kindly flush the Kleenex for me, my appreciation would know no bounds. I just don’t know what you used it for. Maybe you blew a wad of snot into it, or maybe you dribbled a little while you were peeing and had to wipe it off the seat. I often to have to do that myself. In fact, when I get up to pee in the middle of the night, I’ll often splash all over the floor, because I can’t see where I’m aiming. Which reminds me: I neglected to mop before you came over, so if the bathroom floor was a little sticky, that’s why. The pee dries near the base of the toilet, and then it’s like chiseling earwax to remove it.

You look a little ill, Roberta. Are you feeling OK?

My point is, I don’t know what you used the Kleenex for, and I’m not going to make it my business this evening to find out. We’re just getting acquainted, and there’s still some secrets we should keep from each other. Like the gimp suit I keep in the back of the closet, for instance. Only I didn’t just tell you that. I was planning to mention it after we got to know each other better. So if you don’t mind, go ahead and forget I mentioned it.

Whatever you did with the Kleenex, I can’t bring myself to touch it. Even if you just dabbed makeup with it, that’s still gross. Your face is a little sweaty on this warm summer evening, and forgive me, but I don’t want to touch a tissue that touched your sweat.

Besides, I can tell that you tried to conceal a zit on the side of your nose. Maybe if you didn’t sweat so much, your noise wouldn’t sprout zits?

Look, I’m not trying to sound harsh. I’m just offering some constructive criticism. That’s how you can tell I truly care about you. That and the fish sticks with the sprig of parsley. (And I already apologized for burning them. At least I tried to scrape off the scorch marks with a butter knife. I hope you know, not every man would go to such extremes to please a date.)

If our relationship’s going to grow, then you’re going to have to respect my fondness for decorative wastebaskets. You won’t be able to toss snot-encrusted Kleenex or earwax-coated Q-Tips in there all willy-nilly.

Don’t you know that garbage in the bathroom is gross? When I’m soaking in an Epsom salt bath, luxuriating in a candle-lit spa of my own making (with cinnamon-scented candles, no less), and listening to the soothing soundtrack of Enya’s Orinoco Flow, the last thing I want to look at is an overflowing wastebasket. Yet thanks to you and your lack of etiquette, here we are.

I would have been happier if you’d left piss all over the seat.

Wait a minute. What do you mean you have to go home right now? Are you upset? Was it something I said?

Are you sure you’re not ill? You look all sweaty and disgusted. You’re not developing explosive diarrhea from the fish sticks, are you? I sure hope you’re not. I was worried if I cooked them thoroughly. Even though the outsides were burned, the insides felt a little raw.

Roberta, if you need to throw up, feel free to use the bathroom. I won’t mind. If you retch, just be sure to use the toilet, and not the wastebasket.

After all, it’s a decorative wastebasket.

A calm, easygoing commute

car driving on freeway in heavy traffic

My soothing motivational CD does little to relieve the insufferable hell that is my morning commute.

As you might know, I have a demonstrated propensity for getting stuck behind monstrous, slow-moving trucks on my way to work.

Today was no exception. I was already late, because I had stopped at the Jack in the Box drive-through to get a breakfast sandwich. I’d devoured it even before I reached the highway, and already I regretted not buying a second. I was starving, and my hunger was putting me in a foul mood.

“Stupid sandwich,” I said, grumbling.

As I cruised with the window down and my motivational CD playing (“You are a calm, easygoing person,” the pleasant voice chanted), a gargantuan, smog-belching behemoth of a truck barreled into traffic to cut me off.

I slammed on the brakes, slowing from 55 to 15 in a matter of seconds. My face slammed into the steering wheel and cracked my glasses.

“Dammit!” I screamed, holding my eye.

“You are a calm, easygoing person,” the motivational CD reassured me.

The truck lumbered ahead with uncertain spasms as the driver ground through forty gears. A putrid cloud of thick smog engulfed my car … sort of like the way my aunt’s denture breath engulfs me when she leans in for a kiss.

I put on my blinker to get around the guy, but a parade of cars blocked me. I slowly crossed the lane divider, to prod my way in, but the guy in the car beside me pounded on his horn.

“Up yours, you useless sack of jackass dung!” I screamed, waving my fist.

“You are a calm, easygoing person,” the motivational CD said.

The truck and I crawled along as the jerks in the lane beside us flew by in a frenzied blur. I gritted my teeth as I imagined them arriving at their jobs on time, their hides escaping unscathed from the boss’s furious ass-chewing — an ass-chewing that surely awaited me unless this stupid truck could get itself moving.

“C’mon!” I screamed, thrashing at the wheel and tailgating the truck so closely that his left mud flap was slapping my front bumper. “Move it, you idiotic lamebrain horse’s ass!”

The truck dripped pebbles onto the road and atop my hood. I backed way off, slowing to five miles per hour, but a rock slipped out of the truck and bounced on the road toward me like a deranged stone skipping across an asphalt pond. I tried to swerve, but the rock hit my headlight and shattered it.

“Dammit!” I screamed, slamming my fist repeatedly into the dashboard. “Dammit!”

“You are a calm, easygoing person,” the motivational CD said.

“Shut up!” I said, punching the CD player and making the disc slip.

“You are —” it stammered. “You are. You—”

I punched the CD player again. My knuckle hit the “play” button and split. I yelped as blood started gushing everywhere.

“You are a calm, easygoing person,” the motivational CD droned, reclaiming its cadence.

I grabbed a grubby Jack in the Box wrapper from off the floor — the one that my breakfast sandwich had been wrapped in — and cinched it around my hand to bandage the wound. Grease and dirt rubbed against the cut, making me clench my teeth and grimace.

Meanwhile, we were still inching along at 15 miles per hour. Even the Ice Age had made better time on its way to work.

“C’mon!” I screamed, wringing the steering wheel as if it were a dishcloth.

“You are a calm—”

“Shut up!” I hollered.

We were on a narrow road with no shoulder. I drifted over to the right, but I couldn’t see around the truck. So I drifted back to the left, but the stream of cars alongside me wouldn’t break, even though my left blinker was still flashing.

I started wailing on the horn and blinking my headlights. (Well, the one that wasn’t busted, anyway.)

The truck driver dangled his arm out the window and extended his middle finger.

“You jerk!” I yelled, pressing on the horn with all my strength.

The truck had a sign affixed to its tailgate that said “Safety is my goal.” However, there was no indication that getting up to speed was on his list of aspirations.

At that moment, a basketball-sized rock slid off the back of the truck and plodded onto my hood. I swerved off the road and barreled out of control across dirt and brush, careening into a parked trailer with a sign that said “Joe’s Jackass Dung.”

Unimaginable foulness spewed everywhere in a nasty, putrescent explosion.

Meanwhile, the truck kept crawling along, dripping pebbles onto the highway. One bounced and ricocheted off the shoulder, flying into and shattering my second headlight.

“You are a calm, easygoing person,” the motivational CD soothed me. “You are a calm—”

I punched the CD player with my good hand. My knuckle hit the “play” button and burst open, spraying blood everywhere.

Only this time, I didn’t have a Jack in the Box wrapper to bandage it with, because in my rush, I had neglected to buy the second sandwich that I had so desperately wanted.

“Stupid sandwich,” I said, grumbling.

A brick-sized bar of birthday soap

birthday present

Wow, what a wonderful-looking birthday present, Hannah! It’s the size and shape of a brick. I wonder what it could possibly be?

Dear Hannah,

Thank you for the gargantuan bar of soap you bought me for my birthday. It’s the size of a brick. Literally — it’s the size and shape of a brick!

Actually, I thought it was a brick before I unwrapped it. I was trying to figure out why you’d buy me a brick for my birthday, seeing that we’ve been co-workers for eight months, and we seem to get along OK.

What gives? I remember thinking to myself at the time. Does this chick hate my guts? 

Imagine my relief when I unwrapped what I thought was a brick to discover that it was, in fact, a brick-sized bar of soap. Talk about an unexpected birthday surprise! (A gift card would have been better, but no matter. You’ve worked with me for only eight months, after all, so how would you know?)

I like the soap. I do. I wouldn’t be writing you such a heartfelt thank-you note if I truly didn’t like it. It smells like pine, which fits my commanding portrait of rugged masculinity. I think women are attracted to men who smell like a forest. It must make them think of shirtless lumberjacks wielding axes, their chiseled muscles glistening with dew-like beads of sweat as they trudge through the thick overgrowth of nature.

Now that I’m washing with the soap, it hasn’t escaped my attention that more women are giving me discrete glimpses. They try to be subtle, but I notice them noticing. Women tend to have a better sense of smell than men, so I imagine they catch my scent only a moment before I enter the room. And they can’t help but to react like wild, savage felines on the prowl for meaty, succulent prey. Meow, indeed! Mmm, mmm.

No doubt the soap is emboldening my already-considerable sexual presence. Let’s face it: I’m a good-looking guy anyway, but the rich pine scent adds an intriguing layer of mystery to my masculine demeanor. And I don’t mean to sound all haughty when I’m talking about my looks, but we work together, so you know it’s true.

In fact, I think I’ve even caught you looking at me once or twice. Am I right, sweetheart? Don’t try to deny it. I’m a sponge for female attention. I soak up and savor every discrete (and not-so-discrete) glance they shoot my way.

My dog doesn’t much care for the soap, though. It makes him sneeze. And although I love the smell, the soap’s not exactly good for my skin. I’ve noticed some flakiness on my arms, as well as some cracks on my hands that weren’t there before. It’s not the most moisturizing soap I’ve ever used.

Sometimes scented soaps can have a dehydrating effect. I’ve seen it before. I just hope it doesn’t clog the pores on my face and make me break out. I’m no fan of adult acne. I thought I left all the pus-filled boils behind in high school. No way I want a repeat of that now. If I have to show up to work with a constellation of zits dotting my forehead, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I might have to throw out the soap and go back to my Lever 2000. (Not to be confused with 2000 Flushes. Talk about irritating your skin!)

If that happens, no offense. That’s why I’m writing you this letter of gratitude — not only to show my appreciation, but also to cover my bases in case I get tired of the soap. You work with me, babe, so you know I’m thorough.

So I do like the soap, but still … I wish it had a moisturizing effect. Sometimes it makes my privates itch, and I have to squirm and shuffle and rub the insides of my thighs together to get relief.

Clearly, I can’t scratch there while I’m at work. What would the boss think? She’d wonder if I have lice, and then she’d worry that I might spread it around the office, since I have such a strong rapport with women.

Besides, HR frowns upon the public scratching of genitals. It says so in the employee handbook. And I’m nothing if not a diligent employee. I’d rather grimace and try to tough it out, or maybe rub my crotch against the bottom of the desk when no one’s looking. I’m sometimes tempted to stick a ruler down my pants, but doing so might cross the bounds of propriety.

And again, I have the boss to think about. She’s pretty lenient, but I imagine she’d draw a line at me rubbing my junk with a ruler. Her threshold runs only so high, and I don’t want to paint an unflattering picture by jamming a piece of company property down the front of my pants. I endeavor to treat company equipment with the upmost respect.

And besides, the ruler has a sharp corner, and though it’s useful for scratching itches, the unintended consequences could prove disastrous if I wielded such an implement with a freewheeling hand. Nobody wants a mishap in the workplace —- especially one of such an epic magnitude. Can you imagine if I accidentally tore open my scrotum? How would I explain that on my workers’ compensation claim? Talk about embarrassing!

I apologize if I’m wandering, but I just want to convey how much I appreciate the soap. I can tell it came from a specialty shop. You don’t often see brick-sized soap, and so when one drops into your possession (like a ton of bricks, LOL!), it’s not an occasion I take for granted.

However, I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that it’s the best gift I’ve ever received. I assure you, it’s not.

Thoughtful? Yes. But amazing? Nah. More mediocre, if anything. Run-of-the-mill. Ordinary.

My profuse thank-you note is not intended to bolster your self-perception as a gift-giving guru. And if I gave you the impression that your gift is the most awesome thing in the world, then I deeply apologize. We work together, so your feelings matter greatly to me. I certainly wouldn’t want to lead you on.

The soap has some flaws. We’ve discussed in length already its tendency to dry out my skin. But a particularly annoying trait is its monstrous size.

Like I said, it’s a brick. Have you ever tried to lather with a brick? Or have you ever dropped a brick on your toe in the shower?

Yeah! Not fun. I still can’t bend my big toe. The soap landed so hard, it crushed the nail. Where I should have a toe, now all I have is a bloody stump with a mangled nail.

So thanks a lot. I appreciate that.

Plus, the soap has sharp corners — much like a regular brick. I can’t scrub with sharp corners, and it’s next to impossible to work up a lather. Specialty soap clearly hasn’t gone through the refinement process of most supermarket soaps. I doubt they’ve tested with focus groups or looked to see what the competition is doing. The soap market is competitive, and if you’re not going to refine your product, then you best drop out of the race so the master cleaners — like Lever 2000 — can reign.

Sometimes the soap will slip from my hand in the shower, and when it lands it sounds like a rock dropping on sheetmetal. It’s a sharp, painful noise, and it’s most nettling to my eardrums. And then I’ll pick up the soap, only to fumble and drop it again.

I don’t like to drop the soap in the shower. What if I were in a public setting, like the gym? The social awkwardness would be intolerable — especially with my hemorrhoids. Nobody but me knows I have them. And now you. Please use that knowledge with discretion.

How would you feel washing with a brick? Did you bother to try a bar of this soap beforehand?

Or when you were on your little gift-buying excursion, did you just throw it in your cart and hope for the best?

What I’m asking is, did you put any thought at all into your gift? Your card didn’t say “Hallmark” on the back, so that right there suggests you didn’t. You gave me some cheap knockoff brand that costs $2. The price was on the back, so I know exactly how much you paid. I notice things like that — again, because I’m thorough.

Just for the record, a real birthday card should cost at least $5. That’s a rule.

The worst part is, with soap this size, it’s going to take forever for it to dissolve. I’ll be scrubbing with this damn thing for a month before it finally wastes away to a hockey puck-sized speck.

And by then, everyone at the office will probably be sick of the overpowering pine-forest smell, and all the women who used to fawn over me will start avoiding me in the hall.

You know what? I should just toss the damn thing in the trash and go back to my Lever 2000.

So Hannah, here’s thing thing: While I deeply appreciate the thought, please don’t buy me gifts anymore. I tell you this only because we work together, and I know you value my opinion. Your gesture was sweet, but in the future, I’d much prefer cash and a card. (And remember my rule:  be sure the card costs at least $5.)

Thank you again for trying to make my birthday special. Better luck next year!

Uncertainty and panic at the bank drive-through

$10 bill

Thanks for the $10 birthday check, Grandma. It was *so* worth waiting in line for 20 minutes at the bank.

The drive-through window at the bank is a problem. Once I slip my deposit into the transparent plastic tube and press the “send” button to make it whoosh away, I’m not sure what to do with myself.

I don’t want to face the bank window, because then the teller will think I’m scrutinizing her performance … as if I don’t trust her with the $10 check my grandmother gave me for my birthday. (And yes, Grandma’s a cheap old bag. That’s why I sent her to a home. You don’t earn a coveted spot in your grandson’s heart by writing $10 birthday checks each year.)

I don’t want the teller to think I don’t trust her, because that’s not the case at all. I always love to watch a professional at work … especially if she’s a gorgeous blonde with a Marilyn Monroe-like mole near her upper lip. Mmm. I love that.

It’s just at the bank, there’s nothing much to look at, because the window overlooking the drive-through lanes is tinted. So I can’t even see the teller unless I get out of my car and press my face against the glass.

Only it’s inadvisable to step outside of your car at the drive-through, because then you might leave the gearshift in “drive,” and the car will rumble through the parking lot and into the highway, causing a tanker truck sloshing with sewage to spew all sorts of unspeakable foulness upon passing pedestrians. And because it’s sunny, none of them will have an umbrella to shield them … unless, of course, they’re the type of person who carries an umbrella in warm weather, to protect themselves from sunburn. But that’s what they invented sunscreen for, and if you’ve slathered yourself appropriately prior to venturing outdoors, then an umbrella on a sunny day is rather superfluous.

So no, you shouldn’t leave your car at the bank drive-through. Besides, the teller tends to freak out if you press your face against the window. I think it’s because she doesn’t want nose prints on the clean glass. I can understand that. It’s not cheap to run a bank and to keep the windows clean. The big banks on Wall Street can afford clean windows, because they get all sorts of taxpayer bailouts and Congressional favors. It’s the smaller community banks that have to be on the lookout for indiscriminate smudges, because if they cleaned their windows each week, then they wouldn’t be able to provide their customers with free checking. I don’t know about you, but I much prefer financial perks to spot-free glass.

But back to the drive-through. I don’t want to face the window, but I don’t want to face forward with my hands on the wheel, either. If I’m staring into space, then the teller might not think I’m interested in the transaction. And I want her to know that I’m an equally committed partner in this all-too-fleeting interaction. I have just as much emotional investment in the outcome of this exchange as she does, and I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m apathetic and uncaring.

If she suspects I’m uninterested, then she might wait on somebody else — setting aside my transaction to give preference to the guy in the car next to me — and who knows what kind of painstaking transaction he came here to perform. With my luck, he’s probably trying to withdraw $1,000 in loose pennies, or something. The jerk.

At first, the teller might think this is all strictly business … but when she turns over the deposit slip that I’ve stuck in the plastic tube, she’ll see the eloquent love letter I wrote. You see, I scrawled it while I was waiting in line behind a behemoth RV belching smog. (Yes, I choked on putrid exhaust, but I did so in the name of love. That’s the kind of romantic tender-heart I am.)

In the note, I’ll map out our future together — the way I envision it with my adoring eyes and hopeful heart — listing the neighborhood in which we’ll live and picking names for our four unborn children.

Unfortunately, one has to print small to fit one’s future on the back of a typical deposit slip. I hope the teller can read my microscopic script. Or worse yet, I hope she doesn’t smudge the ink with her thumb. I poured my heart and soul into that epic haiku, and it would be a momental tragedy if the teller couldn’t read it. Our wandering hearts would never find each other, and we’d be left wandering in the desolate, stormy sea of loneliness … adrift without paddles … floating without hope … with no horizon or compass or painted drive-through lanes to guide us toward a loving embrace.

So yeah, the drive-through window at the bank is a problem. The tinted window separates me from the object of my affection, and when I look at the one-way glass, all I can see is my pathetic, pallid face staring back at me, forlorn and alone.

Oh sure, I could venture inside the bank and perform my transaction there, but it’s my lunch hour, and the drive-through is quicker. Besides, you never know who you’ll get stuck behind in line. The world’s most plodding, dawdling imbeciles are always ahead of me, shuffling forward with no sense of urgency and conducting transactions that last longer than the Ice Age. It’s like they live in the bank, setting up tents and sleeping bags as if they’re nerds at the premiere of a superhero movie.

Don’t they know that I’m in love with the teller? Can’t they see the desperate, anguished yearning in my eyes? Do they not realize that they’re preventing two hopeless, passionate dreamers from forging a bond?

I pull away from the drive-through with my $10 and a receipt. If the teller saw my love note, she chose to ignore it. I imagine the deposit slip was carelessly discarded, its loving words to be shredded … its idolizing message destroyed.

Ten dollars. What solace can a young man seek with such a mockable pittance? To what secluded destination can this lonely heart abscond?

If only Grandma had given me a better birthday gift, then I might not be in this predicament. The cheap old bag.

Sweet serenade in the moonlight

If you’re looking to serenade a special someone in the moonlight, it’s never advisable to bring a synthesizer. Trust me on this one. Even if it’s portable and uses four D batteries instead of an electrical cord, the hassle is sure to undermine your amorous intentions.

Man serenades woman in dark alleyFirst of all, you have the lug the oversized thing four blocks to your lover’s downtown apartment. And being an underpaid artist with starry-eyed aspirations, she of course lives in a sketchy neighborhood. Tromping along the sidewalk with the keyboard hoisted upon your shoulder — like a lone pallbearer at a Yamaha funeral — you’re always afraid some hoodlum’s going to approach you, pull out a switchblade, and demand you play the distinctive riff from “Low Rider.” (Which would be terrifying, because you’ve never practiced any War songs.)

Then you have to set the thing up on the sidewalk beneath her third-story window, and the latch on the flimsy plastic stand breaks when you pry it open. And there are no streetlights near this deteriorating, forlorn structure, so you can’t see what you’re doing. You end up setting the keyboard off-center, and it slips off the stand and onto the sidewalk, chipping one of the keys — with your luck, probably a C.

And then the wretched thing won’t turn on because when it fell, one of the batteries came loose. So now you got to flip the keyboard over to find the hatch. And when you step backward, you end up kicking an alley cat that was rubbing against your shoe, because it has a thing for slip-on Vans with checkerboard patterns.

So the miserable feline screeches and belts for a nearby Dumpster, knocking the metal lid off a trashcan, which echoes like a sonic boom in the otherwise silent night. It almost sounds as if you’re jamming with Stomp.

When you finally get the keyboard on, you stare up at your beloved’s window and launch into a soul-wrenching rendition of “Broken Wings.” The bass notes thud in time to your hammering heart, and your soul pours out in a quixotic display of melody and harmony … even though you tend to sing off-key.

And lights flicker on throughout the apartment building, like individual stars blinking to life in the twilight sky. And a blue-haired old bag in a ratty bathrobe sticks her head out the window and screams “Shut the hell up, you whiny bastard! You sound like Justin Bieber with his testicles caught in a blender!” (You decide to take that as a compliment.)

And other tenants start yelling, too. An empty bottle of Early Times whizzes past your ear and shatters in the alley behind you. And now that cat is screeching too, perched on the Dumpster and clawing on the lid, almost as if it were a DJ scratching a metal turntable.

“Shut up!” the neighbors scream.

“You suck!”

“Play ‘Freebird!’”

And yet the window of your beloved’s apartment remains dark. Perhaps she’s a deep sleeper, or maybe she’s pulling a late-night shift at the animal shelter, where she volunteers her time comforting abandoned alligators rescued from the sewer. She once said she’d like to adopt one for a pet, to give it a nice home.

“You could learn to stick your head in its mouth,” she once said. “You could perform on the street corner, and the crowds would love it. You’d probably make more money than you do now playing your stupid synthesizer in the subway.”

Now, as you launch into an elegant rendition of “Nights in White Satin,” every window except your lover’s is lit up. And as your voice cracks during the long, wailing refrain, you remember suddenly that Tuesday is her night to dance downtown at Trixie’s Gentleman’s Club. It dawns on you that she’s not even home tonight. (It also dawns on you that in addition to “Nights in White Satin,” the Moody Blues sang “Tuesday Afternoon,” which is either an eerie coincidence or a completely unrelated tangent to this rambling narrative.)

So you decide to pack in the operation as bottles and beer cans pelt the asphalt around you. But when the apartment’s lobby door flies open, and the overweight landlord starts charging toward you in his bathrobe, you can’t help setting the synthesizer to “tuba” mode and providing a rapid succession of bass notes to accompany his huffing, heavy-footed gait.

“Shut up!” he screams. “I’m big-boned!”

Just before he reaches you, you grab the keyboard and stand and start running. The alley cat prances alongside you. The landlord collapses on the pavement in a massive coughing fit.

Music is the pulse that surges through the night, like a saxophone on a street corner or a synthesizer in a subway. And because you brought the damn thing all this way (and also because is your lover is busy collecting dollar bills in her G-string), you decide to lug it down the stairs to the grimy station to entertain the late-night commuters.

And if someone requests “Broken Wings” or “Freebird,” then so much the better.

Omit the extraneous details, please 

Two businessmen in meeting“Did you know there was an earthquake last night?” I asked my friend, Hank, as we stood near the water cooler at work.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I felt it.”

“You felt it?” I asked. “They said it happened around eleven-thirty. I was asleep.”

“Yeah, well, I was awake,” he said. “You see, I’d gotten up around eleven to take a gnarly dump, and when I lay back down, the whole room started shaking. I thought a car had hit the house.”

I stared at him, blinking.

Hank frowned. “What?”

I crossed my arms. “Did you really need to add that extraneous detail?”

“What extraneous detail?”

“The detail about why you’d woken up.”

He shrugged. “I was just trying to explain why I was awake.”

“And you needn’t have done so. All you had to say was that you were awake and that you had felt the earthquake. Nothing more.”

“Right, but I wanted to explain to you why I was awake at eleven-thirty.”

“No one cares why you were awake at eleven-thirty. It’s an extraneous detail that’s not pertinent to the story. That’s why they call it ‘extraneous.’”

“I don’t think it’s extraneous,” Hank said. “I think it’s integral. If I hadn’t have been awake, then I wouldn’t have felt the earthquake. The reason I was awake is a pertinent part of the story.”

I shook my head. “It’s neither pertinent nor appropriate. All you had to establish was that you were awake and that you had felt the earthquake. Further elaboration was unnecessary.”

“I disagree. I think it’s a crucial detail that you can’t omit. Its absence raises the question of why I was awake so late on a work night.”

“Nobody cares why you were awake so late on a work night.”

“Again, I disagree. If someone is awake that late on a work night, an explanation is required.”

“No explanation is required,” I said. “Like I stated, it’s an extraneous detail.”

“Not when you’re an early riser like me,” Hank said. “It’s well-known among my co-workers that I go to bed early. That’s why I needed to establish why I was awake so late on a work night. You see, what happened was that we’d had Karen’s chili for dinner, and I woke up in a cold sweat with my stomach churning. I was lucky to hobble to the bathroom without exploding all over the hallway.”

I plugged my ears. “Not listening,” I said.

“It was terrible,” Hank continued. “It was like the Jeff Daniels scene from Dumb and Dumber — expect more harrowing and traumatic. Clearly, I had to shower afterwards. And then the moment I slipped back into bed, the earthquake hit. I was so rattled, it took me a long time to doze off.

“All in all,” he said, “the whole ordeal cost me two hours of sleep. So if I seem a little off today, that’s probably why.”

“Well, no offense,” I said, “but your judgment does seem a bit clouded. As you should know, it’s not entirely appropriate to mention your bowels in a workplace conversation.”

“My bowels are a pivotal part of the story. I thought I explained that point already.”

“In depth, yes.”

“Look,” Hank said, “all I’m saying is that I’m not exactly at my best when I have endure diarrhea and an earthquake in the same night. It’s all a little unnerving.”

I sighed. “I just wanted to make small talk, Hank. You know? Water-cooler conversation.”

“Right,” he said. “And I thought that’s what we were doing. We were talking about the earthquake.”

“No,” I said. “As you just pointed out, we were talking about your bowels and your chili-fueled escapade.”

Hank shrugged. “Well, it’s not exactly a detail you can gloss over. Especially if you had to live through it, like I did. Man, was it excruciating. Karen felt bad, too. She said she probably put in too many jalapeños, or something.”

I shook my head and started to walk away.

“Hey,” Hank called. “Where are you going? Was it something I said?”

“I have to go,” I said. “My stomach’s churning.”

I’ll pay extra extra for destruction-free delivery 

burning flames

Well, I hope the delivery-person made it out OK.

I received an e-mail notification from Amazon today. Apparently, they’re refunding my money for an order that never arrived.

The explanation given was that the item was “destroyed during transit.”

Destroyed.

Now normally I’m not one to pry into the proprietary operations of the parcel-delivering industry. The process by which an item reaches my doorstep is really none of my concern. All I care is that I receive it.

However, in this scenario, given that the item not only didn’t arrive as expected, but was in fact outright destroyed (as the communication proclaimed), I would argue that further explanation is required.

Not so much because I care about the item itself. (It was a bottle of magnesium capsules, after all; not an irreplaceable heirloom.)

But I’m genuinely curious. How does an innocuous item meet such a ruthless and untimely demise?

The word “destroyed” carries so many horrific implications, it makes my mind start whirling. Already, I can imagine myriad possibilities:

Perhaps the truck plunged headfirst into a herd of cattle that happened to be crossing the highway, and the vehicle and all the packages it contained exploded in a fiery inferno.

It’s possible. Maybe the intersection was poorly lit, and the driver couldn’t see. Or maybe the bovines crossed at a red light, because the lead cow’s hoof was too large to push the crosswalk button.

Or maybe a rogue employee absconded with the truck and led police on a high-speed chase through a labyrinth of city streets, barreling down sidewalks and sideswiping fire hydrants. And in his desperation, he flew up an incline, thinking it was a ramp … and launched himself off the freeway and into an electronic billboard, shattering the van into a million metallic shards.

Could happen.

Again, I’m not a sticker for the details, but in this case, the e-mail left me hanging. My journalistic instincts have been dormant for some time (sort of like the journalism industry itself), but they tell me there’s more to the story.

After all, how does one “destroy” a package of nutritional supplements? You could drop it a million times and it wouldn’t hurt the capsules.

And even if the product gets damaged, that rarely prevents delivery. I’ve received plenty of dented boxes that looked like someone had chucked them down a flight of stairs. (I’m all for speedy service, but throwing packages down the stairs isn’t the ideal way to achieve it.)

I even got a magazine in my mailbox one time that had a boot print on it. (Of course, the cover’s headline proclaimed, “U.S. Post Office hemorrhages money; reeks of incompetency.” So there might have been some retaliation involved.)

As to the fate of my doomed delivery, I suppose I’ll never know — which is frustrating. All I can think about is my poor package, decimated by some unknown force, its ashy remains fluttering away in the wind.

In the meantime, though, I did order another bottle of magnesium capsules. Here’s hoping these ones arrive via a destruction-free delivery.

Is there an option for that? Because I’m willing to pay extra for it.

Hallmark moments that go on too long

Home video Christmas

Christmas home movies are always fun to watch … as long as they eventually come to an end.

A few years ago, I purchased an analog-to-digital converter so I could import all of my family’s VHS home movies into the computer.

Capturing the video required playing it in real time, so I watched as milestones from my childhood unspooled before my eyes. It was like reliving the long-ago moments of a cobwebbed memory … except with a timestamp on the screen and tracking that needed adjusting.

Unfortunately, I fell asleep and drooled on the keyboard, which shorted out the light on the “caps lock” key. (So now when I’m typing, I have to express my anger in italics.)

The thing was, I’d forgotten how boring home movies were in the 1990s. (Note: I wasn’t being angry there; I was just placing emphasis.)

It was a different era back then. The economy was strong, the Cold War had officially ended, and new episodes of Saved By The Bell were still being made.

But when it came to cutting-edge technology, we weren’t quite there — as evidenced by  the lack of Internet and the elephantine cell phone Zack Morris carried.

Speaking of cell phones, they’re the camcorder of choice nowadays. They’re small and portable, and they encourage us to film from various angles.

But in the ’90s, camcorders were large and bulky, and they looked more like a shoulder-mounted cannon than a consumer electronic. So instead of lugging the things around, we’d set them on a tripod, press “record,” and walk away.

Hence the boringness. Most of my home videos are shot from a single vantage point, and they play out for at least an hour. The whole time, I’m begging for somebody to pick up the camcorder and change the perspective. (Unfortunately, my counterpart from 20 years ago was more concerned with playing Nintendo than manning the camera.)

In one example of immoderate reminiscence, the tape labeled “Christmas Eve 1993” is 40 minutes of my cousins and I tearing open presents — all shot from a single, never-ending angle.

That’s it. Nothing else happens. It’s not a Hallmark moment — it’s a Hallmark epoch. And not an interesting one, at that.

What was the point of preserving this spellbinding footage? As a historical study, it’s not that interesting. What doe-eyed archivist is going to care that I got a pair of socks in the waning years of the 20th century?

Besides, all that crap Santa Claus brought has since been hauled to Goodwill and the local landfill. (Except for the socks, which not surprisingly rotted. They didn’t stand a chance.)

These days, we’re conditioned to film in abbreviated takes, to accommodate social media such as YouTube, Vine, and Vimeo. We’ve learned to preserve our memories in seven-second snippets.

But we didn’t do that with VHS. The incentive back then was always to fill the tape — as if any blank space was an unforgivable wastage tantamount to tossing out food during the Great Depression.

“I need to fill the tape.”

“Do something interesting, will you? There’s only 5 minutes of tape left.”

“No, don’t turn it off! Let it keep going till it runs out of tape.”

The result is hours of footage of people sitting around, stealing glimpses at the camera.

“Did it shut itself off, yet?”

“Did it run out of tape?”

“What should we be saying?”

“Should somebody juggle oranges, or something?”

“Allen, see how much tape it’s got left.”

If my old VHS movies offer a window to the past, then I’d rather draw the blinds.

Actually, I’m just kidding. I’m glad I have all those VHS tapes — especially during the holidays, when I can watch them together with family. Sure, we fast-forward through some of the drawn-out, stationary shots — but at least the footage exists.

What I really regret are the times when we didn’t take video or pictures. Those moments live only in my memory, and they’re susceptible to time (especially if I drink a lot of eggnog during the holidays).

I treasure all of the photos and video I have. Although not all moments are worth reliving, most are worth preserving — especially if you intend to share them later with loved ones.

And that’s the thing. When it comes to family and friends and all the joyous moments they bring, you can never make too many memories.

The kind that produce gas

man and woman on date in dinerI like to conclude a romantic evening with a beautiful woman by reaching across the table, taking her hand, and extolling the many virtues of beneficial gut bacteria.

It’s not often I get a second date.

Actually, I’m not even a big proponent of probiotics. Not anymore. I took them regularly for a few years, guzzling the little buggers before every meal and championing their magnificence as if I were Dr. Oz.

But there are so many different strains — so many brands and varieties — that my microflora mastery is quickly degenerating to obsolescence.

So no longer do I extol the virtues of beneficial gut bacteria.

Instead, I reach across the table, take my date’s hand, and urge her to research the subject herself.

It’s still not often I get a second date. But I can tell I’ve given her something to think about, even as she’s dashing in a panic for the restaurant door.

After all, the scientific literature regarding the safety and effectiveness of probiotics is quite extensive.

At least, I assume it is. I wouldn’t know. Everything I know about probiotics, I learned from the Internet (as well as how to self-diagnose on WebMD):

  • Some probiotics inhabit the small intestine while others inhabit the large.
  • Some work best with others; others work best alone.
  • Some slim the stomach while others cause gas and bloating. (Try not to confuse the two before a big date. I’m speaking from experience, here.)
  • Some should be stored at room temperature while others are best kept cold.

I guess it’s not the best dessert conversation — at least judging from the looks I get. I admit, the mental image of microorganisms surging through your digestive tract (and we’re talking billions and billions of them, here), is a little unsettling.

But they say dating is a learning experience, and if I can impart some of my wisdom over cheesecake and coffee, then I feel I’ve served humanity.

Of course, the dates always end soon after — and often, the women insist on driving themselves home.

Which is understandable … considering that earlier in the evening, I confused my waist-trimming probiotics with the gas-producing variety.