Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Mysteries of Marketing

As the retail season stumbles to a close for the year, in this a global recession, an old thought rose up in my mind: If I had to sell anything for a living, I'd likely starve.

Advertising, marketing, salesmanship all require a persuasive art form that I simply do not possess. I know people who are in sales and are very good at it, but I simply don't have the knack. Long ago, thankfully, I worked for an advertiser and was surrounded constantly by salespeople. They were a fun-loving, gregarious group of people, and wacky hijinx often ensued. One of their favorite games was to have chair races in the parking lot, where they would duct tape themselves to office chairs and race down the slightly inclined parking lot with one of the other members of the sales team acting as the driver by pushing the taped associate. That ended on the day that one of the sales people decided to let go of his assigned chair.

A trip to the ER featuring sutures resulted, and it became company policy to ban chair races. That was easily the weirdest memo to ever circulate through an office, by the way. "In light of recent occurrences involving Brad's face..."

But that's not why I'm a terrible salesperson. I'm naturally introverted, but learned to overcome that. I appear to be very outgoing but am actually just a shy person who learned to compensate.

That and there was my first job at a drugstore which I am certain made me associate sales with wanting to vanish through a handy gap in the floorboards. The drugstore in question had a training technique, if a customer asked for a specific product and we didn't recognize the name, we were to ask what its use was as products were grouped by use. So the cold medicines were on aisle three, foot care items aisle two, etc. Doesn't sound like it would be fraught with peril but it managed to mortify me the very first time I tried it out.

A nice looking man of about 35 entered and spied me standing behind the counter. I was sixteen and, as you can see from my profile photograph, I have exceptionally dark hair combined with incredibly fair skin. This combination does not seem to broadcast "sturdy, unflappable, extremely practical" and it also means that when I blush, people seven counties away likely see a glow on the horizon. The man looked at me and hesitated, I smiled and he tentatively approached.

"Excuse me, miss, where are the prophylatics?" he asked politely.

Now, I'm reasonably well-read, and I was at sixteen also. I have a fairly extensive vocabulary and it is pretty difficult to stump me in terms of language use. It happens to this day, of course, but at sixteen I knew exactly what prophylatic meant; preventative. How peculiar, I thought, about fifty percent of all products in a drugstore are used to prevent something.

"What's it used for?" I asked with great cheer, and a confident smile. Then I wondered why the man was looking at me as if I was entirely deranged.

"You know, Trojans?" he offered.

I did, of course, who doesn't? Concealed in horses and all that. I stared at him as I pictured a Trojan Warrior in my head, clearly not comprehending his meaning. The man was staring at me as if I was extremely simple and then began the mortifying litany.

"Condoms! Rubbers! Ways to not get pregnant!!"

There ended my brief foray into being the super salesgirl. In fact, when I think of why I associate having to sell anything with dire levels of embarrassment, it has to do with that drugstore, and frequently with those blasted prophylatics. There was also the time I was busily affixing price stickers to a gigantic vat of condoms when before me appeared a Catholic Nun, who I'm still convinced the universe must have imported specifically to make me want to perish on the spot. I lived in Princeton, NJ at the time, a place not exactly stuffed with convents. I literally had the things piled around my feet, and onto my knees, so when I stood up to take the nun to the aisle she needed, I accidentally showered the feet of a bride of Christ with rubbers.

That killed off any sales, or marketing abilities within me. Yet, I've always been fascinated by the ability to sell because it is a skill I so decidedly do not possess.

Marketing in a recession is particularly tricky. For several years I didn't see many commercials because we have a digital video recorder, and at our old house, I couldn't see a TV from the kitchen. The only time I watched TV was when I was seated on the couch, fast forwarding capability at my fingertips. Now thanks to our new house, I can switch on the TV, access a recorded program, and watch while I cook. This meant exposure to commercials for the first time in years.

Trying to get people to buy anything in a recession is a challenge, and it seems that most companies settled for a vibe that can only be described as awkwardly uncomfortable. Target has a series of ads that are best termed the Passive-Aggressive Olympics with things like a young woman receiving a gift of jewelry from her (rather frightening looking) boyfriend. A terribly gaudy thing, which she accepts with a less than gracious, "I didn't know we were there yet." and her cringing boyfriend assures her it didn't cost much; cue Target logo. This is the advertising equivalent of my encounter with that poor man in the drugstore, who probably wished my father had donned a rubber, rather than produce me lo those many years before. That's just one example of the weird ads out there this year, but there were plenty.

I guess the thinking runs that people aren't comfortable spending money, therefore the commercials should reflect that feeling of discomfort. It's a strange way to sell. Smiling was also out this year, it seems, leading to things like a Levis ad with a creepy voice-over and nary a grin from the beautiful young people doing things like swapping their jeans.

So I sent my TV many a questioning glance in between pulses of the food processor, and occasionally even stopped to stare, whisk aloft, jaw drooping slightly. I had my head down, picking stems off of blueberries when I heard what I think was the 43rd bastardized rendition of Carol of the Bells, a favorite among advertisers. I used to love that darned thing, but it has several mutant forms that are rather unpleasant. When I heard the familiar tune, my spine stiffened as I de-stemmed, then:

One Foreign Yeti, Hikes with a Teddy

That was the line that got me to look up. The entire commercial was nonsense lyrics with accompanying images. I put down the blueberries, walked into the family room and rewound specifically to see the commercial.

Later I would see this:

Yipes! There's the clown!

You know, I may not know how to sell anything, I know that about myself. I'm also probably featured in a couple of tales told by other people as "That idiot clerk" but I do know something else: If you want to make me buy something, you're better off making me laugh, rather than reminding of the various uncomfortable situations in my life.

And indeed, I ended up asking my mother, "Hey, do you want a GPS, by any chance?"

She did, and way to sell, Garmin.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That Missing Piece

Every now and then we run into a situation where one key piece of information can radically alter the meaning.

Many years ago, not long after my father had died and I was sixteen-years-old I was out for a walk. I've never been a religious person, but my father was and I've always liked old churches. In the course of my walk on a pretty Spring, Saturday morning I came to a church called St. Nick's. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day and the doors of the church were open. A divine invitation of sorts, I thought. Boy was I wrong.

I decided to go in, sit down and contemplate. I knew people who attended St. Nick's. It is, to this day, a Catholic parish, but I'd been to services there in the past since I knew people who attended church there.

It's a beautiful church, intricate stained glass windows, beautiful architecture done up rather lavishly. I walked in and took a seat in the middle of the church, prepared to think deep thoughts. I noticed a small group of three people in the front pew, but paid no attention to them.

When the organ struck up a chord, I thought it must be choir rehearsal. When I heard a rustling sound behind me and turned to see altar boys in full regalia standing at the head of the center aisle, I assumed that similarly, they were having rehearsal.

At this point I was being dense on the level that only a sixteen-year-old can achieve but it was entirely innocent. The organ launched into some piece at full volume, and again I heard sounds behind me, but I didn't turn to look until the priest strode to the center of the altar and began speaking.

Wow, they really rehearsed seriously, I thought seeing as the priest was in his full robes.

So when the coffin was wheeled up the center aisle, it came as quite the shock and there was a moment of panic for me, but I did the only thing I could think of that made sense. I grabbed a prayer book from the pew and sat tight. That's how I ended up crashing the funeral of some very elderly woman named Mary. If the mourners wondered who the heck I was, I never gave them a chance to ask. I did my turn of answering the psalms, and then I beat a hasty retreat.

On the way out I actually bothered to read the sign out front where the service time for the departed was listed. Oops. Hopefully Mary had a good sense of humor. Unfortunately there is one key difference between Episcopal services, and Catholic services: The words to the Lord's Prayer. The Catholic version ends sooner, the Episcopal version contains the "Forever, and ever, Amen." which I dutifully boomed out all by myself when the time came. Only if I'd been waving a sign that said "Interloper!" could I have stuck out more. Let me tell you, the acoustics in that church are quite impressive. My "forever and ever, Amen" may still be echoing around the rafters to this day.

Similarly, many years later when I had my first date with my now-husband I had a curious thing happen.

"Do you have any pets?" I asked, in the manner that we all do when trying to get to know someone.

"Yes, a cat. Do you want her?" He sounded thoroughly disgusted, and I was taken aback. What kind of jerk didn't like his own pet? Luckily for me, I decided to back burner the question rather than flee his animal-hating presence. He seemed a nice guy, despite the cat hatred.

As it turned out, Murphy, perhaps the vilest feline to ever live, was not his cat, not technically at least. Murphy was a rotund, ill-tempered Calico who liked to bite people, was so fat as to make grooming herself impossible (let us not even discuss her hygiene) and she remains the only cat I've ever met who had acne. Wherever Murphy lay, a Yeti-like patch of fur remained behind her.

The day I met her I found out the rest of the story. Murphy belonged to one of my husband's friends, a couple who had several pets, including several cats. Murphy became the main suspect in a repeated rug pooping incident, and Robin, my husband's friend announced that he planned to have her put to sleep because of this. Rob, my husband, was thoroughly appalled.

"Well, if it has come to that, I'll take her." He told Robin grimly, and that was how he became the main custodian of the world's most charmless cat. We had Murphy until the day she died, and although we both felt like ghouls, it was something of a relief when she passed on to the great beyond. She was filthy, and mean, but we took great care of her, and tried to love her, even though she had hate in her heart for all the creatures of the world.

But it wasn't her lack of winning characteristics that had Rob offering to give her to me during that lunch date. On the same day that she came waddling out and hissed at me, Rob began to sneeze. His eyes were watering, and he was clearly uncomfortable. He'd been fine before we got to his apartment.

"Hold on, let me take an allergy pill," he said as his eyes streamed.

"What are you allergic to?" I asked incredulously because a sneaking suspicion had entered my mind.

"I'm allergic to cats," Rob said, fairly miserably. That little missing piece of information that took him from being the jerk who didn't like his own pet, to being a man who couldn't bear the thought of Murphy being put to sleep, so he took her despite the fact that she was the most allergenic cat on the face of the Earth. He didn't hate animals at all, he was, and is one of the biggest animal lovers I've ever known.

It was this past weekend that my husband and I nearly scarred my son for life. Turn back now if you are exceptionally prim, by the way. My husband had just been upstairs taking a shower, and came down fully dressed. I was in my office, where the plantation shutters were all closed.

"Honey, I think I might have a hernia," he said, and I did what wives and mothers everywhere do, I swung into diagnostic mode.

"Does it hurt? Any redness?" I asked with concern.

"No, I'm assuming it was very recent, although I don't know what I did," my husband is no fan of doctors, but I knew he'd have to see one and said as much. Then I did what I consider to be perfectly natural:

"You'd better let me see," I prompted, and with a glance towards the well secured shutters, my husband proceeded to drop his trousers and boxers so that I could get a better look at his groin. Unsurprisingly, I've met the area in question before.

We aren't a casually nude family. No one here ever runs around in a state of undress but by the same token, we aren't prudes. We are, however, always dressed when wandering about the house, oddly enough.

So I was still seated in my office chair, my husband's bare butt was facing the door and I was leaning forward, peering intently at a slight swelling that would, indeed, need the attention of a doctor. It was at this moment that my son came bursting out of the basement, in full view of my office, and saw the examination.

Only he was missing that key piece of information, so he uttered a strangled scream, and disappeared back into the basement. For a moment I was completely baffled, what in the world had gotten into him? My husband looked equally befuddled and we exchanged a glance that clearly said, "What's up with him?" between us before realization struck as to what he thought he had just seen.

"Oh! Uh oh!" I yelped, and immediately went to the basement door. "Hello?"

"Nobody's here." My son yelled, in a strange voice. "Go away! UGH!"

"That wasn't..." I began, and then dissolved into laughter.

A couple of minutes later I did manage to collect myself enough to inform my son that he hadn't just interrupted some terrible reality program called Parents Gone Wild or something of that nature, but instead, a purely innocent moment wherein I was being Dr. Wife.

My son was quite relieved, to put it as mildly as I know how. Presumably he'll now have one less reason to be in therapy when he gets older.

But it got me thinking about all the times in my life that one missing piece of information radically changed my perception.

It also made me wonder what situations I currently have fixed in my brain, that are missing that one, completely altering bit of information.

Here is another example, I can tell you, with a completely straight face and without the whisper of lie, that I am godmother to the Baby Jesus. No kidding. Do you think I'm leaving something out? You'd be right.

On the day my godson, who is also my nephew, William was christened I stood and did my part in my brother's High Episcopal church back in Long Island. It was also the day the church in question had their annual Christmas pageant, and tradition has it that the newest infant plays the part of the Baby Jesus.

I hadn't been informed of this beforehand, but somehow restrained myself from falling over laughing when the baby I had been made godmother to moments before, was trotted out in swaddling clothes.

Sometimes the details are rather key.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Panic if you see a Krampus

In the course of getting to know our relatively new house I discovered something: It is capable of making the worst sound ever heard in the history of human hearing. I suppose I could make an audio file of the actual sound, but then none of you would like me any longer, and you might even wish me tremendous ill. I wouldn't blame you in the slightest. Houses should not make a sound like the one our alarm system made yesterday.

We don't use our alarm system. It isn't monitored, and in fact it took us four months to beat the system into enough submission that a chime would not sound each and every time someone opened a door, or window. The chime itself was mild enough, but at three in the morning, when my nineteen-year-old son would come and go, as is the realm of having college students living at home, it was less "mild, rather pleasant" and more "soon I will lose my entire mind to sleep deprivation". We had to dig through five different manuals just to find the existing master code, change the master code, and shut that thing up. The blessed silence that ensued was bliss.

I think it lulled me into a false sense of security. I had forgotten that the alarm system was actually my enemy, second only to that freaking carbon monoxide detector that commenced beeping every minute, in the depths of a box, which took me a full day to find, and then I had to drown it in the pool to get it to stop. Twice, since it came back to life after it dried out the first time. Blasted thing.

Anyway, we do take our smoke detecting seriously, and when the system began chirping, quite loudly, every single minute, we made great haste in dragging out the ladder and replacing the 9 Volt battery in what appeared to be the chirping culprit. This mysteriously caused every detector in the house to begin chirping in turn and we found something about our home: We had no earthly idea where the detectors are here. My husband and I would station ourselves at different points in the house, waiting for the chirp, and then trying to hunt the darned thing down. You'd think that would be an easy task but it's a very large house, with peculiar acoustics and one of the smoke detectors turned out to be in closet. So that took over an hour, and required a quick dash to the store to secure more 9 Volts.

When we were done replacing every battery in the house, the system decided it was "Not Ready" and continued to emit a piercing chirp every minute. Try this for an hour and you will find that it wears on the nerves. As my husband was replacing the ladder in the garage, I stood before the above panel and made a mistake of ear-splitting proportions. I read the buttons, and pressed the corresponding key. One said, "Off", the other "chime". I thought perhaps "chime" actually meant "chirp". I was very wrong, and was soon to live in a world of regret. Now if you study that picture you will see what I didn't, there's a nice little line connecting the off and the chime button. The line helpfully proclaims "Panic".

Wow. How entirely apropos. I didn't press them together, even I'm not that foolish, but I must have pressed them in close enough proximity that, indeed, it was time to panic. And pray for deafness, because, holy hell, what a noise.

Normally I'm good in an emergency. If you are in the mood to start spurting blood mysteriously, I'm actually a good pick to do that around because I remain calm in the moment. I wouldn't recommend the spurting, but I tend to rise to the occasion, and then have a massive nervous breakdown afterward. This evidently applies only when it is someone elses problem. If I caused it? It turns out that I morph into a cartoon character with a head as level as Daffy Duck, complete with spluttering.

The sound was actually beyond description. Sincerely, if someone broke in to our home in the middle of the night, I would much rather they steal every single one of our possessions, our cars, every jar of food and the light bulbs too, rather than hear that sound. I desperately hope that is not the sound the fire alarm makes or we're all going to perish in our beds as a preemptive measure rather than get up to investigate that sound. It is the sound that howling evil must make at the edge of the endless abyss. When and if the world ever gets sucked into a void in the universe, the sound beforehand will likely sound a great deal like that. Imagine the sound of every toddler throughout the course of time, shrieking as one, in the midst of tantrum of legendary proportions and you will have grasped about half the horror of that particular sound.

It was, to sum up, really and truly an awful sound, and its source was exactly four feet above my head. I managed not to simply drop dead as a means of escape. As my husband came flinging, wild-eyed, through the door, I began to ineffectually beat helplessly on the control panel, which if it is even humanly possible, made the sound worse. At which point I commenced with the Daffy Ducking by putting both hands firmly over my ears and whirling like a dervish in a tight, panicked circle while simultaneously my knees performed the Charleston.

"What made that happen?!?" My husband said, or rather, bellowed. For all I know he actually said, "Is that the two minute warning of imminent destruction?" because all I could see was his eyes bugging out of his head, and some wild gesticulating in the general direction

I turned and sprinted with great haste to the fuse box outside where it was at least half as horrible in terms of sound. I briefly considered never returning. Perhaps I could just keep running? Join the circus, pursue the life of a vagabond, sell my organs on some dubious market to make some dosh and live under an assumed name. Instead I turned off power to the entire house in less than two seconds.

It did absolutely nothing. My husband, hot on my heels (and presumably also considering life on the lam) stared wildly around.

"What the hell do we do?" He yodeled.

"I don't know!" I screamed back helpfully. "Move?"

We both turned and ran swiftly back into the house, my husband pausing to grab what appeared to be the manual for the alarm system as he sprinted through the butler's pantry.

Stopped short in the middle of the kitchen, trying to figure out what to do, I did the only sensible thing I could come up with: I ran into the closet-style pantry and closed the door after me. No, I don't know why. Struck me as the right move at the time. It was somewhat quieter in there but as I couldn't live amongst the oatmeal and pasta (although this was also a tempting option) I emerged and bizarrely did my dervish/Charleston/Duck routine once more before running towards my husband. So that he would not die alone.

In my haste I kicked the near life out of my cat, who was acting as if he was in the midst of being electrocuted. I'm sure he has permanent damage to his neurological system, but considering his everyday personality, I'm not sure we'll notice a difference. I stared in horror at him before taking another step towards my husband when peace and quiet crashed down on us all, and the sound of a billion toddlers cut off. It was like Nirvana.

My husband stuck his head around the corner, and I swear that one of his eyes appeared to be much larger than the other, and he had a decidedly mad scientist expression on his face.

"What happened?" He was clutching the manual to his chest, out of breath.

"I happened, it was me." I said, walking past him and lying down on the living room floor in the shape of a capital X. "I did it, I was trying to make it stop tweeting. Oh God, tweeting is so much better than that."

"That sound is more likely to kill us than save our lives. I hope it never has reason to go off."

"Yes, we'd be doomed, entirely." My heart was hammering in my chest.

"Oh happy dagger!" my husband yelled, and we both got an adrenaline induced case of the giggles.

"Thank you so much, honey. I'm so sorry. I promise I will never touch anything in this house again. I can't believe you didn't just hot-wire the car and leave me to my fate."

"I had the keys in my pocket, actually. From now on we need a clearly mapped out exit strategy, keep the passports in the glove box."

"Flee the jurisdiction and have Kimberly list the house as we make our escape." I supplied.

This was when I realized that in the four minutes that the worst sound in the history of hearing had been going on, I hadn't seen my son. I removed myself from the living room floor, miraculously without even the use of a person-sized spatula, long enough to shout down into the basement:

"Are you alive down there?"

"Yes," came a rather calm reply, "I'm hiding."

"Wise lad." I called back, and returned gratefully to the floor, this time as a Y.

It was an hour later, as I was lying limply on the couch, waiting to stop feeling as if I needed to jump directly out of my skin at a moment's notice, when I discovered via The Colbert Report on Tivo that if only I was an Austrian child, I likely could have handled that terrible fright with aplomb.

I've never seen the Austrian Krampus before, and if you've never seen The Colbert Report, please be aware that he's a comedian, doing a parody of a Conservative talk show host as a means of satire. At the end of his report, there is a bit that explains what the Krampus is. I've seen it before, normally it's an amusing looking devil-cartoon, who travels with St. Nick, and scares bad children. The Austrian version turns out to be, shall we say, a bit hardcore. Austrian children are apparently made of tough stuff.

As a full grown woman if one of these characters in costume broke into my house, I'd likely scream my fool head off in fright, and make great speed towards anywhere but where it was.

I'd also hit the pound and asterick keys in combination, because I have a feeling it is the music of his soul. That's got to be what that sound is, it's not a "Hit this Panic Alert to bring aid to your side" but rather, "When you are panicking, this is the sound your central nervous system makes."
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude - Hallmark & Krampus
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Smiling Monster

I had a dream last night about a monster who never stops smiling. I know what inspired the dream. Furthermore, I know the name of the monster. His name is Richard Cohen and he sat smiling when Rachel Maddow told him his words were being used to kill gay people in Uganda. He smiled, and corrected her, as if she was a child, suffering from a misunderstanding. As if comprehension was at the root of the problem, but make no mistake, this man knows what Uganda has done, and is doing. His tone was gentle and admonishing. He said he advocated love and understanding, but smiled when told he had blood on his hands.

Uganda is not the United States, you may say, and you would be right. Yet, discrimination still flourishes in our country, and the battle is being fought to bring equality to all. Currently our laws support inequality. We do not extend Civil Rights to all, we are still meting out Equality, as if it is earned, or granted, rather than a right.

"If you sit silent, you are complicit." The man in the dream was telling me, and I was terrified, locked into a horror-scape within my sleeping mind. I know that I was thrashing in bed from the state of my covers upon awaking, I was drenched in sweat when I awoke, too.

I will tell you honestly that I was eighteen-years-old before I found out that anyone thought there was anything wrong with being gay. I didn't realize I had been raised in a liberal version of the Episcopal church until I was older, but I had been. A young man I knew through some work I was doing in theater was talking to me about the girl he was dating, and I was astounded. I had been sure he was gay, and said as much:

"Oh! I thought you were gay!" I was laughing at my own misunderstanding. I didn't know then that anyone would try to hide that fact, or that it was a source of pain for anyone. Was I a bit naive? Absolutely, but I genuinely did not know I was saying anything that might hurt, or upset him.

"I'm not gay!" He said, rather ferociously. I was taken aback, he sounded angry. Beyond that he sounded, and looked frightened. I didn't understand why.

"I'm sorry! I was wrong." I was frightened in my own turn. What had I done wrong? I honestly didn't know, but from that day forward, I was very careful with what I said.

It will come as a surprise to no one that when I met that same man again, more than five years later, he was living openly as a gay man, and he introduced me to his partner. If he had any recollection of that moment between us, five years earlier, he gave no indication of it. I will tell you that he was no longer frightened, or angry. He was in love, and happy. He introduced me to his partner with ease, and a smile. I liked that man, by the way, I always had. I'd hated the moment when I had upset him, and I was very happy to find out that he'd gone on to a happier life than the one he was trying to live when I was in school with him.

Do you know, I can no longer remember his name? I remember his smile. He had the most gorgeous smile. It would flash across his face, and it was impossible to not smile in return. I didn't have a crush on him, as I said, I had known he was gay from the moment I met him, but I always thought he looked a bit like a Disney hero, only much shorter. It was no coincidence that he was often cast as the hero of the plays he was in. He was exceptionally handsome, and his smile was beautifully freeing for all who beheld it.

I've studied a lot of history. I know the true dangers of discrimination. I've studied a fair amount of the history of gender politics and know this to be true also: Where I was born in our time-line has greatly determined my rights as a citizen. That I can vote, own property, marry of my own free will, and end or continue a marriage based on my personal feelings, all of that was determined by a fight that went on before I was born.

This is not a political blog, it never has been, and is unlikely to be so going forward, but silence in the face of discrimination is akin to condoning it. At present Gay and Lesbian citizens of the United States cannot marry, have equal protection under the law, one of the basic laws under which I was born excludes people. As if they are not equal. As if they are somehow second-class citizens, unworthy of Civil Rights.

That's wrong, and it needs to change. Holding onto discrimination in any form puts us all in peril. If I sit silent in the face of discrimination, then I am participating in that discrimination. Long, long ago, when men sought to deny women the right to vote they called forth the bible as reference material. A woman's place was to be subservient to a man. Those that came before me, who fought before I was born, helped guarantee me rights that should never have been in question.

Equality that is parsed, or meted out, is not true equality. We are the ones living a lie when we do not fight for the equality, a basic right of our country, for all.

Richard Cohen claims to have been cured of being homosexual. He claims that he promotes love, acceptance, tolerance, but his book claims that people can be cured of their sexual orientation as if he is referring to a disease. I think back to my friend, living his lie, the one foisted upon him by others, and I think of his smile the day he introduced me to the man he loved. Love is not a disease. Sexual orientation is part of who a person is, something with which we are born.

I knew that at eighteen. I know it at forty-two. I will know that until the day I die.

In my nightmare a huge screen loomed overhead. Richard Cohen's horrible, monstrous smile, belying his words was ever present. People were dying, all sorts of people. I was trapped in some terrible, dark factory of death and I was trying to flee. Everywhere I turned, there was Richard Cohen's terrible smile. The same one he pasted to his face as he denied that Uganda was using his book as proof for why it was acceptable to murder gay and lesbians.

In the dream I was running away, through twisted corridors. From where do dreams come? Our world around us. Our subconscious mind. In some cases, our conscience. In others, all of the aforementioned.

I went tearing around a corner in my dream, desperate for escape, and a man grabbed my arm. I turned, terrified, and saw the face of the man holding me fast. It was my friend from so long ago.

"If you sit silent, you are complicit." He told me, his tone admonishing. I know from where the voices in dreams come, they come from me. I know that to be true. If you see something you know to be wrong, and sit silent, you are participating in that wrong. If I am silent, I am participating in that wrong.

Freedom of Speech is another basic right. It can be a difficult one, it means we will have to afford the right to people with whom we vehemently disagree. It is part and parcel of that right. Richard Cohen both frightened and sickened me. Saying he promotes love and tolerance, but completely at peace with the fact that his words are being used to justify the murder of those he claims to love and tolerate. It is not in this land, but it is one of the inherent dangers of government sanctioned discrimination in any country.

I know why my sleeping mind selected the image of my long ago friend. I know that I put those words into his mouth, but I know something else. After he said those words to me, he smiled, and I woke up. Free of the monster in my dream, a man my sleeping brain did not create. A man who will claim love and tolerance, but is urging you to view Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Bisexual human beings as sick.

I know he is wrong, and the only way to fight him is to say so.

This is not my fight, you might say. My fight was fought by those who came before me, and now it is my responsibility to fight for equality for others, who need more voices. Who need my help, so that those born into this world will have guaranteed rights under the law, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of sexual orientation.

If I sit silent, I am complicit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kevin Finds Mousey

In literature for children words have power. If you speak the creature's full name, you will invoke it. It is one of the rules of the imagined universe. A mere utterance can bring untold misfortune, and can have consequences beyond the wildest imagining.

Do you remember when you believed that? If Rumpelstiltskin's name passed your lips, he would appear. If you knew the right spell when attending a school for magic, your enemies would be frozen in place, unable to hurt you, or they in turn could paralyze you.

Some of us lose that sense of wonderment as we grow older, the ability to invest in the fantastical. To extend our belief to that which exists beyond our proven reality. Others of us became science fiction and fantasy fans when we grow up, because sometimes belief in things far beyond our current reality is the very thing that helps us cope.

"Let me tell you about the time we went to Mackinac Island," my husband began, "they had the best fudge in the world there..."

My husband's childhood has always rather fascinated me. A large family is as strange and fantastic a concept to me as being able to wave a wand to conjure wealth, or a rub a bottle to bring forth a Genie. My own family is very small, as both of my parents were only children. This is not a recommended marriage dynamic, by the way. Two people used to being the center of their own world did not a good match make, but that's a tale for another time, or not at all.

We were sitting in a hospital room watching over my son following a bad fall on the ski slopes. In the long run he was fine, and that's all that really matters now. My husband was trying to distract me, and it was working. I listened to the tales of the adventure on Mackinac Island, seven kids on vacation with their parents as told through my husband's memory.

Kevin is now 6'6" inches tall, but to my husband he will always be the little brother. Kevin was four at the time and his most treasured possession was a stuffed animal named Mousey.

It was ten years ago that I first heard the story of carriage rides, and children scrambling all over an island in Michigan, safe and protected.

"Then what happened?" I asked.

"Well, then Kevin lost Mousey," My husband explained who and what Mousey was. "We searched everywhere. We were a task unit. No corner of that island went unsearched."


"We never did find him," he finished, but it had worked, I was distracted, my mind taken off the worrying thing at hand.

"You need a better ending to that, you know." But I was laughing.

When my husband hung up the phone the other day he didn't need to say anything. As we get older, we find out the truth: Sometimes you need not speak the creature's name to invoke it. Sometimes the creature is conjured regardless. There is no magic phrase to ward it off, and you can only do what you can do.

Late that night we were both lying awake, staring at the unchanging ceiling above. My husband couldn't sleep, and neither could I. I reached for something that had become a joke between us, when times were tough.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Mackinac Island?" I asked.

"I think I know that one already."

There are stories common to simply being human, to having a life, and to loving people. The end of those stories is sometimes beyond our control, and we do the best we can. We try to be there for each other, in whatever small ways we can.

"No, you don't," I assured him, "in my version of the story, Kevin finds Mousey."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lighten up, Candide, it'll be okay.

It's been a long time since I first made that joke. When faced with grim circumstance, sometimes the best we can do is to simply ignore whatever dire outcome may result, and just keep on trying.

Denial gets a bad wrap. It absolutely can become a very dangerous tool in a life, we've all seen that happen around us at times. Sometimes though, there is no action that can be taken to head off disaster, and that's where a goodly dose of denial can be a sanity saving device.

I made my now oft used Candide joke to my orthopedic surgeon. Following a car accident, which had not been my fault, I needed to have a fair amount of surgical reconstruction performed on my right heel in order to stand much of a chance of walking again. My surgeon was a funny, placid sort of man. Unlike most stereotypes of surgeons, he had a dry wit. A gentle personality completely missing the cliched arrogance associated with surgeons. If there was a man you could trust to cut you open, he would be it. A bomb could go off in an operating theater and he'd mildly raise an eyebrow in the general direction of the disaster, and get back to the task at hand. It was my misfortune that this accident had happened just prior to Christmas, and that surgery would be performed on New Year's Day. It was not a particularly festive season that year, but all things considered, I had been exceptionally fortunate.

My surgeon was telling me, in his completely unflappable way, of the many and varied things that could go dreadfully wrong, as he was required to do. Informed patients aren't merely easier to treat, it helps head off future lawsuits. When he got to the part about the myriad of terrors associated with having a tourniquet just below my knee for hours, while I was completely unconscious, I told him to lighten up, Candide, it would be okay.

We got each other. We both understood grim humor, and in what was actually an amusing fifteen minutes, we took every possible dour outcome to a hilarious end. If I lost my leg due to the tourniquet, I'd just get an eye-patch and a parrot, while adopting a Salty Dog persona. That sort of thing. My surgeon knew that I really did understand the risks.

Why be so cavalier? I had no choice in the matter. Don't get me wrong, I could have skipped the surgery but my ability to walk would have been severely compromised, and the likelihood that I'd have severe circulatory issues was rather high. It was surgery or bust for me.

Everything turned out well. I was lucky then, and I tend to be lucky. My troubles right now aren't even really mine.

Voltaire's Candide never really had much turn out well, but he kept moving forward. If he was on a ship in the sea, he would naturally be swept overboard, but plucked from the drink. If he was foolish enough to drink to the health of a king, he'd end up being conscripted into the army and nearly flayed alive when he tried to do the sensible thing and desert. Candide had some rotten luck, epically so.

We all feel a little bit like Candide, at times. It's a very funny book, by the way, if you are a fan of satiric humor. If you aren't, it's fairly appalling, I suppose.

My mother-in-law reminds me of Candide. That poor woman, she once wanted to be a Rockette but instead she married my husband's father, and together they followed the Catholic family planning that led to seven children. This has been an adventure fraught with much peril. When her husband was suddenly killed seven years ago, on she carried. She just kept going forward. I'll spare you the many calamities that have surrounded her voyage through the sea of life, but the seas, they have been rough. Two children currently suffering from severe drug addictions. Some mental illness that are equally pronounced. One grandchild born with grim prognosis, predicting an early death from a condition for which there is no cure.

At the end of this week my mother-in-law will have surgery and later that same day she'll find out how far her recently diagnosed breast cancer has spread. It hardly feels like a time to make merry and a person less deserving of yet another crisis I'd have a hard time naming.

When we asked her what we could do, anything, name it! Her reply was simple, "I just want to act like everything is normal. Give me your Christmas Lists. I love the holidays, I love to shop!" and she genuinely means it.

My mother-in-law, a good soul who keeps stumbling forward into life, hoping everything will eventually work out. I truly hope she gets a good outcome this time, and I thought back to that time when there was no choice but to await whatever grim outcome may or may not be.

All she wants is a healthy dose of denial for a bit. She deserves it. Since there is nothing I can do but hope against hope for her, my husband and his family, it's time to embrace the denial. Slight problem: I had no idea for what to ask. None. Nada. Zilch. My mind was a yawning chasm and my list was due today.

I was standing in the shower, staring off into space, thinking of Candide and wondering what to tell my mother-in-law, whose request is so logical, and kind, "Please distract me. Give me something to do. Treat me like all is well. I love the holidays."

Hemingway, a writer I don't particularly admire, used to refer to a blank page as something like "The White Bull". Most of the time I want to commit Hemingway's prose to flames whenever I think of it, but a blank mind feels much the same. Having been given a task, the one thing that could genuinely help, I was covered in what my son would refer to as "epic fail".

All she wants is to have a happy holiday, I thought, think of something! Anything at all. Something that would make her feel festive and capable. Distract her, for the love of all that is good and decent. I couldn't think of a thing. It was vaguely amusing in a horrible sort of way, what in the world was wrong with me?

When someone actually tells you what you can do for them, it would be awfully nice to actually do it. Ease her mind a bit, but my own had seized like an overheated engine.

She just wants to celebrate the things she can. She just wants to wrap presents, and take care of the people she loves, I thought. I have a nimble mind, I've always had a nimble mind, what was wrong with me?

And then the blogs saved me.

I went tearing out of the shower, grabbing a robe as I went, and emailed my sister-in-law with the list my mother-in-law had requested by today.

You saved Candide, Jo, Kathryn, Jennifer, just to name a few. There are many more.

"Tell her I need Christmas decorations, please. Anything, the brighter, the cheerier, the better. Go nuts! Scottie shaped Santas, plaid snowmen, CDs of Christmas music. If it sings carols in an electronic voice? I want it to be mine."

If you wonder what good you have done in the universe recently, I will tell you: You helped a widowed mother of seven grown children, staring down the barrel of a bad luck once again, forget her troubles. Blog after blog talking about the season, featuring pictures of ornaments, and trees, talking about who made what, and from where your ornaments, and memories came.

She'll be able to surround herself with decorations, perusing them for hours, and looking them over carefully. I can't think of anything that will make her happier.

"That's perfect, I knew you'd think of something. That will make her so happy." My sister-in-law almost immediately replied.

Actually, it wasn't me. It was you. Yes, you.

May the blessings of the season be yours. Thank you all so much. What good do blogs do?

Today they helped poor, beleaguered Candide, indeed.