This is an essay from 2014 - and it appears on page 74 of my book, A Little Bit Sideways - but it (sadly) never grows old. There's a whole new generation of young (and older) men who are ridiculously clueless when it comes to romance and Valentine's Day in particular:
My new editor asked me to write my February column about romance. Borrowing from the great Bugs Bunny – “She don’t know me very well, do she?” Poor thing probably hasn’t had time to read many back issues and doesn’t realize what my track record is.
But I take pride in doing what I’m told (sometimes). And I relish relaying romantic tales. So here goes.
Valentine’s Day means a lot. To women. Not so much to men. Most men do what they’re told to do by their woman in order to maintain the household peace. This I know with certainty, because I have three adult sons and have had three semi-adult husbands. I believe this makes me an expert in the romantic gifts and gestures department, or—perhaps more accurately—what not to give the woman in your life if you ever expect to have intimate relations again.
After all, every man hopes that giving the right gift will lead to what we women call romance. The men call it something else that I can’t say here. The smart ones realize that a thoughtful, mushy gift will open a woman’s heart and make her feel all warm and tingly inside. Which leads to a long walk in the woods, then some playful swapping of baseball caps, then a relaxing soak in twin bathtubs outside in the yard while watching the sunset. Oh. Wait. No. That’s a special pill commercial.
Most men these days do know that most women are wired differently and require a little schmoozing. They don’t understand it—because, honestly, all they need is a simple nod toward the bedroom, and they’ll be out of their boxers and under the sheets before you take three steps down the hall—but if some affectionate gestures and canoodling make his woman want to jump his bones, a man will comply. But this is where some of the worst stories come into the picture. Seems that even what comprises those gestures is a mystery to men. Just when they think they’ve got it nailed and are doing something romantic, it can all blow up in their faces, poor things. A few things not to do:
Shoulder rubs are wonderful and most women will welcome one—but not when standing at the kitchen sink scrubbing pots—you’re likely to get hit over the head with a frying pan. Better idea? Gently nudge her away from the sink, dry her hands, pour her a glass of wine, and you finish the job. By the way, this only works if you do a good job of it, not the old - I’ll do a crummy job, and she’ll never ask me to do it again ploy. Because that just pisses her off worse and gets you further from your goal. Much further. You have no idea how much further. One of the best pieces of advice for a male cohabitating with a female is to learn early on how she likes certain household tasks done, then actually DO them that way. If more nookie is what you’re after, listen and follow my directions. Doing chores badly only makes her think of you as she would an irresponsible teenager. Someone she needs to supervise—so she’s still on duty, not relaxed. And if your woman is the weird exception that finds a grown man who acts like a petulant teenager a turn-on, well, it’s up to you, of course, but I say there’s a whole lotta trouble coming your way. If you stay, then you deserve what you get. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Don’t tell her you’ve planned a romantic evening, have the wine poured, get her all comfy on the sofa, then have a porn movie start playing when you hit the remote. (Unless you know, for a very, very, solid fact, that she’s into it. Come to think of it, get that in writing and have it notarized.) Women will compare themselves with the gorgeous, but anorexic, girl with huge boobs on the screen and wonder why you need to look at her to get turned on. Which leads to massive feelings of inadequacy and lower confidence and not so much fun in the bedroom—if the door hasn’t been slammed in your face already.
Do not write her a poem that has any words rhyming with bucket. Just don’t.
In addition, do not give her the following ‘gifts’—all courtesy of my exes: Fencing lessons when she’s never expressed ANY interest in it. A white yarn mop head (without even the accompanying mop stick to put it on). Yeah, wish I was kidding you on that one. A box of real coal chunks in a pretty box from the most expensive jeweler in town. No jewelry hidden inside, just the chunks. A used coffee mug. A scrub brush for the car. And a framed picture of your mother.
You are welcome.
One of my greatest fears from early childhood was that I’d fall into the three-quarter-inch gap in the seaside boardwalk planks in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We lived a few miles inland and would go to the boardwalk amusements every once in a while. I remember so vividly the smell of tar mixed with the tang of salt air. Every time I smell tar, I go back to childhood and the boardwalk. Here’s the weird thing—I love when that happens. I love the smell of tar. But for some reason, the little gap in the boards absolutely terrified me. In my mind, they were a foot wide.
Such is the strangeness of childhood fears. What’s also strange is how we all remember what those crazy fears were. So, I’ve been asking people about theirs, and, to a person, they had no trouble dredging up an example from early in their lives.
One man was completely freaked out by Winnie the Pooh. Screamed bloody murder when he saw the cartoon or, heaven forbid, came face-to-face with a stuffed one in the toy store. He can’t figure out why, though. Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet? No problem. Only the cute little soft-voiced, gentle bear made him cringe.
A more common one was mannequins. That, I can understand. Some of them creep me out, even now. Especially when they’ve been made to have facial expressions. I saw one recently whose face was cast in a freakish wide-mouthed laugh. He had heavily painted eyebrows that pitched together over his nose and way-too-bright blue eyes. He looked maniacal, like something the Joker would leave around to taunt his next victim. How that mannequin was an asset in selling men’s clothing was beyond me. What store owner would buy him? I ponder the good judgement, not to mention the sanity, of such a business owner. He’d be the type to have a trap-door in the dressing room or a secret two-way mirror.
An older man confessed to a paralyzing dread of chalk as a kid. Chalk? He had this fear long before the jumping into Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawings happened in the Mary Poppins movie, so we can’t blame Walt Disney or Dick Van Dyke. Maybe his mom banged the dust out of chalkboard erasers near him when he was an infant?
One little girl went nuts if she saw colored sprinkles. All-brown chocolate ones were okay. Just the happy and festive multi-colored sprinkles gave her nightmares. In an unexpected side note, clowns, known for multi-colored faces and outfits that universally give us the willies, didn’t affect her at all. You’d think they’d trigger the same reaction.
Speaking of nuts, a boy had a near-panic attack if confronted by peanuts. Not peanut butter, but the nuts. He didn’t have an allergy. All he can fathom now, as an adult, is the Mr. Peanut icon spooked him.
Product mascots when we were young were everywhere and pretty bizarre, come to think of it. The Jolly Green Giant? I was leery of him. Thought he was always about to squash those cute little green sprouts dancing around him. Speedy, the Alka-Seltzer boy? On the old black and white TV, he looked like a demented ventriloquist’s doll, and I hated those things. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man with his stupid tilted sailor’s cap? I can’t explain why he creeped me out, but he just did. And why did he look so much like The Michelin Man? And for the life of me, I couldn’t comprehend Mr. Clean. An adult man who helped women clean the house? Oh, Please. My dad never cleaned anything, except the grill and the lawn mower. None of us kids fell for that one.
We were supposed to like and trust these icons? We were supposed to be happy to eat Charlie the Tuna’s friends? I submit that maybe the reason for our childhood terrors had more to do with the Madmen's three-martini lunch where they dreamed up such stuff, rather than anything actually being wrong with us.
Have you ever seen the aftermath of an exploded, spoiled can of cranberry sauce?
When I was a kid, I didn’t like the taste of cranberries. Mom taught us how to string them with popcorn to make Christmas tree garlands, but eating them? Nah. By my teen years, my palate had matured, and I realized Mom’s homemade cranberry relish was pretty darned good. Made with oranges, a few spices, and not too much sugar, it became my go-to for consuming cranberries. This was way, way before sweetened dried cranberries—Craisins—were temptingly dangled in front of us on TV like the California dancing raisins’ long lost cousins.
The problem with having a mother who made most things from scratch, and very well at that, is almost nothing served by others—individuals or restaurants—measures up. So I tend to take a pass on canned anything. Sometimes my Thanksgiving guests will come with donations for the dinner, which is so very thoughtful and nice. For the record, I prefer fresh flowers or wine as a hostess gift. But once in a while, that donation is a can of cranberry sauce, which I conveniently forget to open and serve. At the end of the meal, I’ll politely slap my forehead and apologize for forgetting. While cleaning up, I feel heartless just tossing it, so the can gets shoved to the back of the pantry. Perhaps my guilt will go away, and I’ll throw it out in a week or two?
Several years go by. I legitimately forget all about it, and if I haven’t cleaned out the pantry (which I almost never do), disaster strikes. Purplish-red gooey stuff goes everywhere. It’s sticky, and it stains, and it’s a pain in the rear to wash absolutely everything down. True confession here, though—it’s only happened once. But once was enough. Some might say I got what I deserved, but I really, really, really hate serving that gelatinous goop. I don’t know why they call the jellied stuff that slides out of the can cranberry sauce. It looks and acts more like Jello. I suppose it tastes like cranberries, in a way. But it’s a far cry from real cranberries.
Another reconfigured and reconditioned Thanksgiving food I can’t stomach is fake mashed potatoes. There are people who buy a box of dried potato flakes (I guess they’re flakes, I really don’t know), mix them with water or milk, and the resulting mush is supposed to be instant mashed potatoes? It’s shocking. That sounds blasphemous on top of unappetizing. Plus they have all sorts of chemicals added to them. I guess I don’t understand, because boiling potatoes, then mushing them up with some milk and butter, is one of the easiest things to do in the world of cooking. There’s nothing complicated about it.
The English and Irish were able to do it, for crying out loud. No offense meant to either nationality, but you are not famous for your great food. We love you for other reasons. (I do have English and Irish in my mixed-mutt heritage). And real potatoes taste good. So I don’t get it. According to info I found on the Internet, instant mashed potatoes have been through ‘an industrial process’ of cooking, mashing, and dehydrating—resulting in ‘a close approximation’ of mashed potatoes. Ewwww. Sounds yummy. Not. Unless you’re cooking for Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, where he uses a gallon of mashed potatoes as a sculpture medium, please try to do it yourself at least once. Your grandmother would be so proud.
What I never figured out was—why Teri Garr made enough potatoes to satisfy a famished fire department when they had three little kids who each probably consumed a couple of forkfuls. But then Spielberg would have had to make Dreyfuss raid his kids’ Playdough stash, and that would have been too hard?
There’s a lot I don’t understand about movies. Like why Bryce Dallas Howard’s heels didn’t snap and break while doing all that running from dinosaurs—through the forest, over rocks, on asphalt—those were some impressive shoes. Or why babysitters open the closet or basement door, when they know darn well what’s behind it? I spent much of my adolescence in babysitting mode, and that is just plain insulting.
I suppose there’s much I don’t understand about a lot of life’s mysteries. But I do understand the wonders of homemade, from scratch—food.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
That’s what my older sister, my dear departed Stephanie, labeled the weird phenomenon of always—as the old knight in the Indiana Jones movie said—choosing poorly.
You walk into a bar with a few friends. There are enough vacant stools, all looking perfectly fine. You choose one. While the others in your party take their seats, you hang your purse on the hook under the counter, then boost yourself up on your stool. And it’s the one with a leg shorter than the other three. It’s the tippy barstool. Every bar has one, and you’ve picked it. Again.
My family excels at this. Welcome to our world. A world where your brand new package of three pairs of socks has a sock missing. You have five socks, not six. The package hadn’t been opened—it was simply a freak from the factory. Or your seat on the plane is in front of the only kicking toddler on board. You get the idea.
Nowhere does Tippy Barstool Syndrome kick in as hard or as often than at the grocery store. First you select a cart. So many to choose from, yet you take the one with the sticky wheel. The next has loud, squeaky wheels. A third has gum stuck to the underside of the handle. Around you, other shoppers are putting no thought at all into cart selection. They simply grab one, and off they go happily—on silent and gliding wheels.
As you peruse the store, placing items in the cart, Tippy hovers like Eeyore’s dark cloud. The first bag of flour you lift has a rip on the bottom that you don’t notice until it leaves a trail of white powder and the floor feels slippery. You glance down to notice your new shoes are dusted white. The first jar of jam you select has its little safety bubble already popped. The yogurt container’s sealed top has a slit in it. The bag of M&Ms was opened via the bottom seam by somebody sneaking some out, and they spill everywhere when you pick it up.
You’ve completed your list. Now you scout out the shortest or fastest line. You zip past all open lanes. For each line of customers, your brain is calculating, rapid-fire, what types of people are in that lane and how much they’ve got in their carts. A line may have fewer people with fewer items, but experienced shoppers know if more than one of those waiting are elderly, skip that queue. You don’t want to be smiling politely while grandpa can’t figure out the debit card or granny endlessly searches for her checkbook, then takes five excruciating minutes to write the check. Are there any harried moms with screaming toddlers? Does the cashier look new? Does the bagger pack slower than sludge? So many factors, and your brain calculates them brilliantly.
The analysis from your logical quadrant reports in, and you get in a line. Two people soon stand behind you. And this is when TBS kicks in. The customer at the register realizes she bought a wrong thing. She panics, says “I’ll be right back,” dashes out of line, and disappears down an aisle. The rest of you make small talk about the drivel on the gossip magazines’ covers in the checkout rack. Which, I have to say, are so unfair. Either the celebrities are too skinny or they’re too fat. Whatever the starlet weighs, it’s never good enough for the tabloids. Alien babies, however, are never criticized on those covers.
I’m digressing. After a few minutes of us showing incredible patience and restraint in resisting eye rolls and sighs, the lady scoots back, apologizing. Those who can’t fake a nice reply merely nod. She pays and vamooses. The next person does everything right, but the register runs out of receipt paper.
It continues like that as the lanes on either side flow effortlessly along. I often tell people I meet in line to memorize my face. If they ever see me in line again, they’d be smart to get in a different one.
Some folks just hate to say goodbye. We all understand. We’ve been there. Separation brings tears when your baby gets on the school bus for first time. When your best friend moves across the country.
When children go to college - Wait. No. Most of us throw a secret party when that happens. We love our teenagers, but by the time eighteen rolls around, everybody needs a break. I remember thinking, don’t let the door hit you in the patookie on the way out. He knew everything, and I knew nothing. Boy, did he need to get out in the world.
Of course, the final goodbye is the hardest. And there are some who simply can’t handle the departure. Will never handle it. I like to think that those who have passed on to their soul’s next phase are at peace, maybe at long last. We who are left behind are the ones who endure the pain of loss. But for a strange demented few, they do pretty bizarre things - as I’ll explain in a bit.
It’s October. Halloween month. Creepy stuff displays are in the stores. Some of it way too icky for me. Especially the pretend corpses shown in various states of decay. I know lots of people who love that sort of thing as Halloween décor, but I am not one of them. How in the world did the idea of displaying fake ‘dug up’ corpses ever become a thing?
Well . . . it stems from real life episodes over the centuries where people did exactly that. Dug up their deceased loved ones and moved them back into the house. Yes, really. There are references all through our history of folks doing it. Not a lot, thank God, but enough to make it not unheard of. Now, why the people way-back-when did it isn’t really explained, but the knowledge that they did do it was passed on. And on. And on. And now it’s a decorating thing in the age of glorified zombies.
Granted, a person would have to be missing more than one belt loop to even imagine committing such a gross act for real. But the human population has always had its percentage of loopers, hasn’t it?
A Detroit man moved his father’s body into a basement freezer because he was convinced Dad would come back to life. Ickier was a woman named Jean. Jean and her twin sister, June, were very close. When June passed away from cancer in 2009, Jean had her dug up after a few days and placed in a spare bedroom. But they weren’t alone. Jean had also been living with her husband’s corpse propped up on a couch for ten years. Ultra-ickier still, a man in Vietnam slept in his wife’s grave for years, until his kids made him stop. So he moved her into his bed, where he slept with her for another five years.
It’s not an ‘only lately’ kind of quirk. Nor is it limited to western nut jobs. There’s an island in Indonesia where the locals exhume their ancestors’ mummified remains every year. It’s like a holiday. They clean out their graves, put new clothes on them, take them for a pleasant walk about the village, then place them back underground.
The kicker is, from the pictures I saw, the poor dead people are at the mercy of their descendants’ fashion sense. This one poor old man got paraded around in a suit with a Hawaiian-print shirt and a red, green & white plaid tie. Lesson? Throw out your ugly clothes you kept meaning to give away before you kick that final bucket.
Yes, some folks just can’t bear to say goodbye. And if your skin isn’t crawling at the thought of these stories, it’s time to check your belt loops.
Politicians have ignored infrastructure. It’s said spending money on bridges, water pipes, and roads isn’t sexy. (Okay, they’re right. It’s not even marginally attractive with beer goggles.) The pols don’t prioritize maintenance and think our eyes will glaze over (they absolutely do glaze over.) We won’t see them as dazzling heroes, and boy, do they want us to. Inside every politician lurks a wannabe movie star.
Congresspeoples, you aren’t the shiny objects. We have celebrities for that. You’re supposed to be boring. You’re in Washington to ensure we have clean water running through big pipes that don’t break and cause sinkholes that swallow our cars and our favorite strip mall (where the movie theater is.) We aren’t supposed to have expensive car repairs from potholes and deteriorating pavement. Yes, you’d rather open a sparkly new stadium surrounded by vapid jocks and cheerleaders, but we really, really need to not worry about bridges collapsing as we cross. Call us picky.
Human nature hasn’t changed one iota. We’re still headstrong, greedy, and power-crazed. History, schmistory. Some full-of-hubris-yahoos-in-charge think they know better and ruin everything for the rest of us. So, here’s a cautionary tale about boring, totally un-sexy, road maintenance.
The Dark Ages in Europe. It even sounds scary.
Called that because a thousand years of crucial advancement pretty much disappeared. It was like everyone but the Church and nobility (and even many of them saw no need for such a tedious thing as literacy) was abandoned and raised by wolves. No science. Or reading. Or artisans. Or hygiene. Basically, they turned rather feral. Believed bathing could kill you. Imagine wearing never-washed clothes for months. Enduring crawling lice. Can you imagine the stink? No tooth care, so toothless by twenty-five. Bad occurrences were witches’ fault. But Asia and the Arabian world didn’t suffer a backward lurch. ‘Cause the cool stuff that advanced civilization developed in the Arabian and Asian cultures.
When the sprawling Roman Empire fell in 476 C.E., western societies disintegrated. Romans had maintained roads from northern England to Portugal to northern Africa, the Middle East, and on to the whole of Eastern Europe. They sent patrols to safeguard merchants and other travelers. As Rome expanded its reach, merchants safely (relatively─for the time period) traded goods all across Europe, Asia, and through the Mediterranean Sea region. With them came Greek philosophy, Arabic number systems, advanced building techniques, public water systems, and so much more.
Once Rome lost its mojo, the roads did also. It was dangerous to travel beyond your local area. Without the Roman soldiers, roving bands of thieves had open season on the travelers. To go anywhere required sleeping by the side of the road nearly every night. Imagine the dangers that went along with that prospect. It wasn’t like the Robin Hood movies. Men in tights and jaunty hats didn’t merrily wait to come to your rescue.
Road maintenance stopped. Paving stones dislodged. Trees and shrubs grew back. Taking a cart across the countryside broke wheels or axles. There was no AAA. No Holiday Inn. Not even a Cracker Barrel. You were on your own.
So, because Uncle Ray and Cousin James never returned from a trip to sell rutabagas and buy cloth, Europeans became insular. No one wanted to travel and brave the unknown dangers that lurked. Over time, they forgot all kinds of helpful information. Became afraid of strangers and foreign ideas. And had to eat way too many rutabagas. And wear poorly made clothes made of the crummy cloth woven by old Aunt Tilly, who seriously had no gift for it.
Now, I don’t think there’s any chance that modern-day math homework will go away (sorry, kids) because of crumbling infrastructure, but being able to travel safely to other regions is a big part of what shapes us. And local produce is great, but I’m not so hot for rutabagas.
The Anglo-Saxons called August ‘Weodmonath’, which meant ‘weed month’. I couldn’t agree more. If you've read my humor book, A Little Bit Sideways, you might be familiar with my ongoing battle against my evil nemesis—weeds. Especially those dinner-plate sized crabgrass monsters. Maybe August is their mating season, because, boy, do they multiply. Along with cock roaches, crabgrass will be among the organisms that survive an Extinction Level Event.
But I digress. The Romans gave us August, after Augustus Caesar, whose real name was Gaius Octavius Thurinus. Supposedly, the Roman Senate bestowed the title of ‘Augustus’, meaning ‘exalted one’ upon Gaius. The gossips at the time said he self-bestowed the moniker. Since his Uncle Julius had the month of July named for him, good old ‘Gus’ followed suit and named a month for himself, too. So, two-thousand years later, by using the name August, we’re still honoring a Roman emperor who left his wife for his mistress on the very day that wife gave birth to his only child, Julia. Eventually—and quite hypocritically—he banished Julia for cheating on her husband, and went to war against his brother-in-law, Mark Anthony. Granted, Antony had dumped Gus’s sister and taken up with the reportedly goddess-like and irresistible Cleopatra, but it was Antony’s quest for power that had really ticked off Gus. These were not great role models, unless you’re writing Game of Thrones plots.
Before all that mess, August was known as ‘Sextilis’—the sixth of ten months in the Roman calendar. It was invented by the not-so-genius King Romulus, who, for some reason (wanna bet it had much to do with wine?), left the winter season out of the whole shebang. Seriously. Ten months of either thirty or thirty-one days each left sixty-one unaccounted for days in the winter. I guess nobody had doctor’s appointments or social engagements then. Everyone just hung around home and survived until Martius (March), the official beginning of a year, finally arrived, and they could once again schedule debauchery parties, gory gladiator death spectaculars, and send out save-the-date-for-our-wedding cards again.
The Egyptians, Mayans, and Sumerians had calendars, too. All had issues trying to rectify a lunar year with a solar year. It involves boring details I’d have to study to understand. If I must study, I prefer it be for bringing forward far more useless and silly information. Plus the explanation will make all our eyes glaze over. With those calendars, though, a day or a week, or, at times, a month, would have to be inserted once in a while, but at least they didn’t just ignore sixty days like they didn’t exist.
But the Mayans take the top award for scaring the crud out of so many back in 2012. I take that back. The Mayans didn’t do it. Modern lunatics did. Convinced lots of folks that a fictional planet named Nibiru would collide with earth when the Mayan calendar ‘ran out’. NASA had to put out many notices refuting the baloney coming from Internet hoax sites.
Why would anyone purposely make up stuff to scare people? My guess is a small percentage of fiends do it for kicks. And the rest? Well, follow the money. What happens when panicked people think there will be a mass extinction? Those who can afford it will buy whatever’s offered to help them be the ones who survive. If you trace the survivalist equipment (doomsday prepper) ad purchasers on the bogus sites, I think you’ll find the real culprits.
It never stops surprising me that humans can be so gullible. If we get hit by a huge asteroid or a planet, and you survive it, trust me, you’ll wish you hadn’t. After your survivalist canned goods run out, you might have to find a way to cook crabgrass and cock roach stew.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.