[This post is a slightly edited version of a post that appeared on my personal blog, Exile in Goyville, in 2010.]
I’m originally from New York—specifically a suburb on Long Island. I now live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The differences between these two metro areas are numerous, and today I will focus on one.
To attempt to illuminate every instance that I’ve felt rather out of water would take an entire blog. In fact, that was the initial intention of the blog named in brackets above.
Today, we will visit the most popular coffee shops in each area: Caribou and Starbucks.
In Minnesota, the Caribou cashier will greet you, and actually smile and listen to your reply to “How are you doing today?”
In New York, the Starbucks cashier might make eye contact when she asks what you want: “Can I help you?” If she says “How are you?” it just means “What do you want?”, and if you reply and ask how she is doing, you will get a vacant stare in response.
In Minnesota, the cashier will then ask you if “you need anything else today?” She might tell you how nice/cold/rainy/hot out it is, and that the football game will be on later, and perhaps you plan to watch?
In New York, the cashier will, while writing on your cup, say, “That it?”
In Minnesota, after you pay, the cashier will ask if “you need a receipt at all?” (“At all?” What does that mean, anyway? Am I supposed to say, “I need it just a tiny bit”?) She will suggest you have a great rest of the day, and perhaps stay cool/dry/warm/inside/outside.
In New York, the cashier will put the receipt in your hand with your change in such a way that the change will fall from your hand and roll off the counter. She will say “sorry” and turn to the next customer while you try to get the coins that are rolling around the store.
In Minnesota, after you take your change, no one will make a move to order until you’ve put everything in its proper wallet or pocket or zippered bag compartment and moved completely out of the way. While they wait, they will smile and look at you. It will make you nervous.
In New York, the moment you have your change (or are scrambling for it all over the shop), the next person will start right in, often before being asked, leaning across and in front of you if necessary: “Yeah, lemme get a double nonfat latte in two cups . . .” It will make you nervous.
I love punctuation. I love all punctuation so much. A well used pair of em dashes can change your life. Semicolons in first-person fiction make me a little weepy. A collection of creatively used periods to break up a sentence. In a. Disjointed manner. Can be.
(Sometimes it fails, I’ll grant you. Have fun with it.)
But the comma.
I love you, comma. I really do. So, so much. Just look at how often I use you. Okay, so this post so far is not the best example of my positively ecstatic use of the comma. It probably will get more comma’d as I go.
So if I love you so much, dear comma, why am I flipping you the bird? Telling you off? Wishing you the worst? Because you can’t make up your freaking mind!
Here are some issues on which you refuse to settle on one rule:
Preceding and following “too”
Preceding the “and” or “or” in a series of three or more items—the Oxford or serial comma
Inside or outside the quote mark when used with quote marks for non dialog copy, such as a song title
Preceding a conjunction when the subject of the sentence is/isn’t restated
In direct address within common expressions: “Yes sir!” or “Yes, sir!”?
And so on.
The result of this, among writers, editors, copy editors, and laymen, is a certain conviction that we know what we’re doing with these silly little squiggles because we heard a rule one time from a well-meaning but ill-informed grade-school teacher. Or, worse yet, we experience a total lack of conviction and become paralyzed in the face of a commatic decision.
Maybe even worse: a lack of any clue about your use, comma, and yet a tremendous amount of conviction just the same. Commas end up everywhere—in the wrong place, the right place, or no place at all. “Use a comma when you’d take a breath.” What?! I’ve heard that advice so many times, and while it sounds lovely, it’s not something to live and write prose by—especially if you hope to professionally copyedit some day.
So fuck you, comma. All your friends have pretty clear rules about their use. We know where to put a period. Even when we’re feeling crafty.
We know how to use the semicolon; anyway some of us do.
Em dashes, exclamation points—maybe we use them too much, but at least if we don’t have restraint, we have a solid grasp on what they’re for!
But you, comma. Was that right? Was that right, just then? How about that one? It probably depends who you ask, and that gives us agita. So fuck you.
I’m a shy Boy. I always have been. Open-house parties—the local parlance for “keggers” where and when I grew up—were an intimidating prospect, but an appealing one just the same. Where else could I expect to expand my social circle, pee in the woods, and kid myself into thinking I might work up the bravery to smooch some girl?
Anyway, aside from peeing the woods, those things never happened. But I did learn a little about what I could expect from myself, anyway. And beer helped a lot.
Sorry, Mom and moms. Yes, I had beers. Beers aplenty, all before I was even eighteen, and that wasn’t even the drinking age anymore anyway. So you can imagine how many beers I had before I was twenty-one! Oh my word.
Where was I? Oh yes. Open-house parties and social lubricants.
I’d better back up a moment and tell you this: The Gap ran a lot of TV ads back in the early 1990s. I imagine they still do, but who the hell sits through commercials on TV anymore? Not this guy. Back then, though—sure. We had five channels. We watched whatever they hell they put in front of us. Anyway, one such ad featured a montage of black-and-white photos of models in Gap clothes, I think. The music, though, I’ll never forget, because it was tune that has become so a part of me that to this day I know every word, every shift in pitch, every breath. I even sang it at my brother’s first wedding in a duet with my aunt.
The commercial didn’t feature the whole song. It merely featured the first thirty seconds—not enough to even reach Blossom Dearie’s vocal part. My father, though, had quite a jazz vinyl collection, and it included no fewer than three versions of this apparently hit jazz tune by King Pleasure and Blossom Dearie. So I listened to the whole thing—constantly. I forced the song and all its lyrics and its melody deep into my gut and my heart. I was one with the song.
So. Open-house party. Kegger. I think I remember whose house it was at. I know this was the night I first heard of “Special K,” aka cat tranquilizer, aka Ketamine. And here, moms and Mom, you may rejoice, because I did not partake of that drug that night, nor ever since. But many people did, as I recall, which meant my social anxiety went absolutely through the freaking roof.
Keg parties where I grew up were generally held in backyards, lest partygoers jostle or break something important inside the house, where parents might notice upon their return from Europe, for example. This time, though, a select few kids were invited inside. After a few beers on the patio, I think I probably grabbed a mutual friend’s coattails and hobbled in as well.
The TV was on in a big, well encouched family room. Everyone in the room, including myself, had by this time relaxed, either through pill or joint or beer, and the faces in the room were nearly expressionless as what had to be Saturday Night Live flashed before our eyes.
Then it happened. The Gap commercial. It happened.
Now listen. I was drunk. I was really about as drunk as I’d ever been in my (I’m guessing) seventeen years. If I hadn’t been, I might have hummed along under my breath, or lip-synced even. But sing out loud? At the top of my lungs? Even after the thirty-second commercial was over, and well into Blossom Dearie’s section—in falsetto, mind you—until the very last line of the song?
I never would have done that.
Not without beer. (This probably sounds like a pro-beer story. It’s not. It’s an anti-fear story. Which, to some degree, is the same thing. I am going to get in big trouble. Don’t drink!)
With beer, though, I sang out loud, and I sang out clear. Or as clear as you might expect a drunk seventeen-year-old to be. And I sang every word, and probably quite well. I’m not too shabby on the vocals, thankyouverymuch. By the time I was done, all eyes were on me, slouched in a chocolate-brown leather sectional with a warm cup of beer in my hand. Saturday Night Live was back from commercial, but all eyes stayed on me.
I grinned and took a sip of that warm beer. I hated beer then. Who didn’t at seventeen, especially that swill we always ended up sipping—Coors Light or MGD or Bud? But I sipped it and smiled.
Now, no one clapped. No one even smiled back at me. One girl said, “Woah.” Then we went back to watching TV. But to me, things had changed. No one would forget I was at that party—as they probably had with every party I’d ever bothered showing up at. And that was something for a shy Boy.
A couple of weeks later, I crashed my car into another kid’s car outside of a kegger—I mean, just the tiniest bit—and then tried to flee the scene right down a dead end. I didn’t get far and took a punch in the face for my trouble. So no one would forget I was at that party either. Not as fun, oddly.
I have, at one time or another, acted as though I were an expert on every imaginable subject. However, and this will come as no surprise to anyone—though the admission itself may—I am in fact an expert in exactly one thing: nothing.
Like Monday Boy, I have a tendency to claim outright expertise in every subject in which I’ve held employment for even a few moments: pizza (the delivery and manufacture thereof), copyediting and proofreading (though I failed miserably at both, with the attention span of a wounded gnat), hospital record-keeping (I once found a patient named Frank Norman Stein, no foolin’), and every facet of the music business (though I was the worst publicist in its history, I’ve no doubt).
Unlike Monday Boy, I’ve been known to speak authoritatively—i.e.: bullshit—on any subject I’ve watched a thirty-minute Nova segment on within the last ten years: dinosaurs as a type of bird (a personal favorite), the purpose of dreams (processing and testing information), the history of the domestication of dogs (the thing with the Russian foxes was a revelation), and the likelihood of an historical Jesus (this is not the time or place to discuss it).
Then up comes Wikipedia. I’m now an expert at essentially everything you can name and all the things you can’t. And the fun part? So are you.
Everyone I know is a tremendous liar. My wife, my son, my closest friends, my mother—they all tell lies with such little regard for the most basic values and ideals. They’ll lie right to your face, too, and smile while they do it.
You are a big liar too, whoever you are, and now and then, yes, I tell a fib.
We all know this to be true, because we are all guilty of the same sin. When the truth is difficult to say, or difficult to hear, we often skip it, shine it up, or twist it so far beyond itself that it becomes something else entirely. We praise the work of others. We compliment their dress. We show up to see our friends’ band, and we stay till the end—just till the end—and we tell them how great they were, how charismatic, how bound for glory.
This isn’t news, of course, but it’s endlessly in the back of mind. It’s been there since I was a wee demon, too, sulking and grumping around, constantly being told I was the greatest at everything and the best-looking child and the smartest—this despite clear evidence against these hypotheses. From this I learned that when I’m given a compliment of any kind, I should assume the opposite is true and the speaker/correspondent/reviewer is just trying to make me feel better.
Ah, I put “reviewer” in there, didn’t I? Yeah, these are, for the most part, people who have never met and shall never meet me. They have no reason I could possibly propose to treat me with kid gloves and to flatter me for its own sake. And yet.
And yet I remain a paranoid little weirdo. I remain so thoroughly paranoid, in fact, that the following chain of events might unfold, and often does:
I write something. I like it all right. I read it again, realize I’m leaning on my prosaic tics and echoing words and whole phrases. I make changes, and I like it a little more, and I develop a tiny amount of confidence in the work.
(Before I go on, I will clarify a minor point. Not everything I write is praised by early readers, nor even by myself. The following chain applies only to that which is praised.)
Someone praises the work. I feel relieved, uplifted, and confident.
Someone else praises the work. I feel suspicious, but still confident.
The first person, at some later date, restates his or her praise of the work. I narrow my eyes at said person.
Another person praises the work. I wonder if this third person has been speaking to the other two, and whether this third person actually even read the work.
One of the three people restates his or her praise of the work. I call my mother and demand she stop speaking with these people and asking them to pay me compliments. She denies any involvement. Then she praises the work.
By now, I’m nauseous with paranoia, certain the work is the worst I’ve ever done, and prepared to put in my application to deliver pizza again. (It’s seriously the best job I’ve ever had.)
So how do I deal with this? I don’t. I sleep terribly, get tremendous heartburn, and suffer frequent headaches.
If you’re a writer, and if you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time in coffee shops. There are few places a writer—especially one with a family—can find a good place to settle in for long chunks of time without being hassled to make purchases or give up his table or otherwise conform to the needs of others. Hell, if we wanted to conform to the needs of others, we’d work at home.
Some coffee shops are quite large. Others are quite small. Some are part of a huge national chain, and others are simple mom-and-pop operations with an eclectic collection of mugs and chairs. Some offer free wifi, and others let writers and other creatives thrive without the threat of Facebook. But there is one thing that all coffee shops must have in common, and that is coffee, which has many great powers. And if I’ve learned one thing as a writer, after spending countless hours in coffee shops and dropping countless nickels and dimes in change pitchers and drinking countless cups of coffee—regular and decaf—and eating countless scones and blueberry muffins and yogurt parfaits and slices of quiche and wraps from a cooler, that one thing is this: eventually, you’re going to have to poop at a coffee shop.
How do we handle this? Here are some tips:
Try not to go at peak hours. After a couple of days at your favorite haunt, you’ll notice waves of customers, typically only three times a day. People tend to line up on the way to work, during lunch, and then after work. If you can time your poop to about 10:30 am or about 3 pm, that’s your best bet to keep coffee shop crowds to a minimum.
If the bathroom has a fan, turn it on and leave it on. No one wants to know you’ve been in there doing your nasty business, so let’s get that odor out of the room as quickly as possible. If the coffee shop has had the foresight to supply a can of deodorizer spray, use it, and if there’s a plug-in deodorizer, many brands have a little dial; turn it up.
Clean it. This is for your own good, so by all means ignore this tip. But I like to keep a collection of cleaning supplies in my laptop bag. I get in there with the rubber gloves and scrub that seat till it’s clean enough to eat off of. If I’m not sure, I try eating a sandwich off it. If it works, then it’s clean enough, and your butt will thank you when it doesn’t develop patches of impetigo.
Clean it again. Have you made a real mess in there, you disgusting wretch? Don’t just wash up and walk out. Clean that thing again. The next person probably doesn’t have the necessary supplies.
Wash up. I’ll never forget the man who used to use the same public bathroom I frequented. This was many years ago in New York, mind you. It went like this, and it happened more than once. He’d visit the urinal, do his thing, and then adjourn. I know lots of guys—and ladies, I expect—don’t always wash after a pee, but the thing with this guy is he would stop for a paper towel to dry his hands, even though he hadn’t visited the sink. So what is on his hands making them wet? Peepee, that’s what, and that’s gross.
Go straight to the counter. This is your last chance to cover your poopy tracks. If you go back to your table empty-handed now, table neighbors will know you’ve been gone for a little while, but haven’t gotten a refill or a snack. They’ll put two and two together and know you’ve been pooping. If you can handle that kind of attention, be my guest. But if you’d rather keep your cover, grab another cookie on the way back. You might even mumble something like, “Wow, long line at the counter right now.”
The most important piece of advice I can give you is this: everybody does it. Sure, most people have the sense to do it before they leave the house because their parents raised them right. But still. It happens. So get in there and poop with gusto. But not too loud, because no one wants to hear that.
Real authors rely on their work to speak for them. They are occasionally willing to make public appearances, to read word-for-word from their work and answer questions pre-approved by a publicist. However, promotion on the World Wide Web, at social networking sites such as Myspace or similar, is strictly beneath a true artist. A good writer’s audience is far too intellectual to fall for promotion in 140 characters or less anyway.
In fact, this blog post itself is really quite beneath me, and that is why it’s 24 hours late showing up: it took me that long to come to grips with lowering myself to such an endeavor. I hope it was worth it for you, you unwashed heathens.
I don’t know shit about sports. Yes, I wear a Yankee (no S, shut up) hat from time to time. I used to wear it every day, but if I’m honest, I got sick of people thinking it meant I wanted to talk about sports. It actually meant—to me—three things: I’m from New York; my dad was a big Yankee fan; and I like Helmet, the leader of which used to wear a Yankee cap from time to time, as they too are from New York. So now the cap I usually wear is a souvenir from a lighthouse on Lake Superior. So far, no one has come up to me and started a conversation about lighthouses.
In addition to not knowing shit about sports, I don’t care much about sports, either. Sure, I root for the Yankees if I happen to pay attention to baseball for a few hours here and there during the season—or more likely during the post-season. But that’s really as far as it goes.
How did this happen? Heck if I know. Like I said, my dad? Big fan: he loved the Yankees, and he loved the Knicks. I joined the Booster Basketball League in my hometown, and Little League. I don’t remember enjoying any of it, though. It’s safe to say I dreaded it, actually: every practice was an opportunity to fail miserably, and then to be bullied, mocked, and intimidated—and that was just by the coaches. That probably sounds like a joke. It would make a pretty good one! But no. Not a joke. So I quit sports as soon as I had the nerve to do so. I took painting lessons instead. Trumpet lessons, too.
My best friend growing up was a tremendous sports fan. He loved the Cowboys, the Mets, probably the Knicks. Who the hell can keep track. (Most guys, I guess?) Anyway, while he was all rah-rah for the whole competitive athletics scene, I was more into drawing, writing, watching TV—well, we both liked that. It was probably our primary binding activity. That or action figures. But I digress. The point is, we made a good team: he liked sports, and on more than one occasion laid a dude out for picking on me because I didn’t. So that’s how I started to see the world: the quiet, artistic lads who didn’t like—or care about—sports, and the tougher bigger dudes who did, but didn’t so much dig on music and painting. Everything I saw at school bore this out: most of the guys I knew who were interested in the arts didn’t follow sports, and vice versa. OR SO I THOUGHT.
Turns out? I was wrong. As it happens, I know now that loads of dudes who dug on all the right stuff from various art scenes were also—I almost said “secretly,” because they didn’t get rah-rah about it, and didn’t wear jerseys and team hats and play on the school basketball team, but that doesn’t make it “secret”; it just makes it “not in-your-face”—into sports. I know one dude who was way into hockey of all things (I don’t know where you live, but this was pretty rare in the north Nassau County suburbs), but I never would have guessed because he also dug on Joy Division.
Where I am going with this? I don’t have a freaking clue. Hey, happy Friday.
I’ve just finished a draft that I’ve been struggling with for over a year, based on an idea I first sketched out and made notes on more than two years ago. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written, and I think it’s pretty good, but I suspect my beta readers will have some other ideas. None of that is relevant, though. I only bring it up because, like Brooklyn, Burning, one central theme of the new manuscript is gender and how we connect with ours and that of others.
Another theme of the new one is online gaming, which is also relevant, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Why have I been so focused on gender the last few years? Well, it’s been moving toward the front of the zeitgeist, for one thing, from way way way in the back, where it’s been for many years now—probably since the last real thrashing our ideas about gender got, in the 1970s. Debatable, but again, not relevant. So moving on. It’s been on my mind a lot because it was right around three years ago that I became a full-time, stay-at-home dad.
Weird, being a stay-at-home dad in a stay-at-home-mom world. I liked it. Still do. In fact, when I was in high school and people asked me what I wanted to do when I “grew up,” I’d always say, “Write and be a stay-at-home dad.” No joke. That’s what I said. I suppose I’d smirk when I said it, because to some degree I probably believed that being a SAHD was something of a lifelong vacation with time to write fiction. But the smirk was also a layer of protection, because I knew that the person I was talking to would very likely think me less of a pinnacle of masculinity if they didn’t think I was at least half kidding. But I wasn’t half kidding. I think that’s pretty obvious at this point.
Monday Boy tackled the identity issues this position raises. Wednesday Boy tackled the issue of the Huxtable Complex (it’s real, and it’s coming for you). Let me a little bit combine those two matters. I’ll start with my own dad.
He died, twelve years ago yesterday, as it happens. But when I was growing up, I have a very distinct and highly predictable memory of life with him on a day-to-day basis. He got home every day a little after five. He put his briefcase down next to the couch and called out hello. He wore dark slacks and a light-colored collared shirt. He wore a tie. After supper, he went back to work for three more hours. He smelled generally of ‘Lectric Shave and Speedstick by Mennen.
When I was a little boy—the late 1970s, early 1980s, let’s say—some of my favorite shirts were Batman and Robin, Dyn-O-Mite, and Mr. October. I probably smelled of apple sauce and Coke and dirt. I looked up to my dad. I figured men wore ties and shaved and worked long hours.
Now, in 2012 as a dad, here’s me: most days, I wear jeans, if I bother to remove my pajama pants, which are covered in a pattern of Atari 2600 joysticks. Some of my favorite shirts are: Space Invaders, Star Wars, and World of Warcraft. To my son, I am essentially always around, except when I sneak away on Saturdays to sit in the coffee shop and write. For what it’s worth, I use Speedstick by Mennen.
What’s my point? This: Yes, there are plenty—plenty—of dads out there today who wear a nice shirt every day and a tie, or they wear work pants or a uniform or a reflective vest. And plenty of them work very long hours. But my experience of dads, within the (admittedly small) circle in which I socialize and generally exist (that includes an Early Childhood Family Education class of just SAHDs, and trips to Target when most people are busy working and can’t get to the grocery store yet, and visits to the zoo and the children’s museum with my son, also during office hours), the dads just ain’t what they used to be.
Is this a bad thing? I guess that remains to be seen. I don’t mind being my son’s best friend (debatable again, but please don’t tell me otherwise yet). I don’t mind that I rarely find occasion to put on a pair of dress slacks and a tie. And I really like my jammy pants.
In the draft I just finished, though, the protagonist reflects on this, and he comes away with the feeling that while girls grow into women, boys just keep getting bigger. I’m not saying that’s the case. I am saying that it seems to be getting harder to demonstrate any difference in an outward sense. If I’m going to insist on dressing like a boy, and listening to loud music like a boy, and playing video games like a boy, how exactly am I anything more than a boy with body hair and male pattern baldness?
I know the answer, somewhere in my gut. (There is one; I swear.) But I bet if you asked my son, he’d just say, “Dad has a beard.”