Today’s marches

The question “will this finally change things?” is the wrong question. The march today will not change centuries of weird and conflicted American thinking about weaponry and freedom. It is highly unlikely that it will be a tipping point. With apologies to my hero Malcolm Gladwell, there are rarely tipping points, though we have to keep believing in them. If we didn’t, we’d never try anything. I think of it the way I think of physical fitness: if you’re out of shape, a workout is necessary. But many more than just one. Stay at it, and one day you’ll be able to look in the mirror and notice some muscle definition. Lord knows the American psyche about guns needs some exercise and fresh air.

So march on.  Every step is necessary. No individual step will traverse the gulf, and all of them will, eventually. Don’t give up after today. Old white men, particularly the crusty types afraid of difference and death, are notoriously difficult to change. They have all manner of power. The good news is you have a longer future than they. Take care of it, and yourselves. They want you become like them, which is the last way they can imagine going on living. Many of you will. Please resist this. Already they are tempting you with self-driving Range Rovers and Louis Vuitton handbags. They are old, but they are wiley.

Also: don’t become fanatics. Often, people think of fanatics as persons who shake up the world. That is horse poo. Fanaticism leads to all manner of emotional reactions that backfire. The difference between you, today, if you yell angrily for radical change and drop F bombs like I do in traffic, is not much different from the way NRA kooks at a convention do, waving banners that say “If they can take one, they can take them all.” Note how weird and, well, fanatical they look. Be better. This may be the one thing we grownups can say that you can take us at our word for: if you stomp and scream and say emotional things, the people you stomp and and scream at will dig in and take much longer to listen, if ever. It will be almost impossible to get what you want. I say this because I have tried it, and continue to try it, sometimes.

Better to take cues from MLK and other great non-violent protestors that came before you. Strength, kindness, persistence, and steadfast calm. Sing songs; do not shout. Music opens the soul; anger slams it shut.

Please be careful out there. Listen: your parents love the hell out of you.

A new hope

It went poorly, didn’t it? 2016 was a rotten egg of a year, a scrawly gang-tag on a wet underpass on the poor side of town. It wanted to be a badass year, but it was just bad. People talk about it the way they talk about the kid everyone hated in class, the one who farted all the time and threw up during sex-ed. “Way to go.” “Keep sucking. It’s what you do best.” 

Bowie. Prince. Glenn Frey. Leon. Lemmy. (I bet you don’t know one song by Lemmy. But you sadly re-tweeted the news, didn’t you?) Bye, bye, Abe Vigoda; it was always just business. Billy Paul will no longer be meeting Mrs. Jones every day at the same cafe, 6:30, particularly if her first name is Sharon. Merle Haggard died on his birthday. Muhammed Ali, the great poet of boxing, flipped the light switch and was at rest before it got dark. Leonard Cohen, simply a great poet, said his last hallelujah. Guy Clarke gave up the ghost: there ain’t no money in poetry, and that’s what sets the poet free.

There were more, heading for the exits, like they didn’t want to see the actors forget their lines. I have found myself wondering if measuring the historic quality of a year by its celebrity death count is a shallow reflection—on me. Why did I have more energy for arguing whether Prince—a guy who knocked on doors as a Jehovah’s Witness—had OD’d, than for helping Hillary? I read Prince got hooked on fentanyl from because his back was shot from years of wearing high heels on stage. Is that fake news? Who knows? I do know half the country was sufficiently medicated to appoint electors who will put a real OD in the White House, as in Original Demagogue (or Official Dick, if you prefer).

A great many black people got shot. Some were running away with loaded guns, others were just sitting there being, you know, black. Fifty people died in a mass shooting in a gay dance club in Orlando, thirty-three in an Oakland warehouse fire. People trying to exit flaming cities in the the Middle East drowned on mercenary rafts in the Mediterranean; Britain exited Europe as a big fuck you to the ones who made it across, looking for hope.

As I’ve thought about the year, I’ve wanted an out, a contrivance, a way of saying it wasn’t all bad. I wanted to call for post-pessimism, to say something better than “Sixteen sucked.” Lean in, go high. But it’s cold dog soup and rainbow pie.

The political disappointment: what else could explain it, except outsized expectations? Hillary was supposed to win. Nyet. Thinkpiece wisdom now says the lost ability of disillusioned middle classes to earn high blue collar wages got Trump elected. I dunno. I know many midwesterners have fallen on hard times, but I’ll also bet if you took out all the Trump voters with 60-inch flat-screens and oversized SUV’s he wouldn’t have carried three states. That’s not loss; that’s privilege. Half the world lives on less than $15 a week.

Retrofitting the Donald’s ascension into a clever sociological thesis misses the point anyway. Just in from the Not-Fake-News, No-Really Dept: there are more dumb people than smart people in America, and they are smarter than you thought. They got a crazy narcissist elected President without the popular vote in a system invented by white guys with fake hair to stop populists from winning. We got Trumprolled. And if, like me, you are horrified, stop pretending it’s not intellectual and class snobbery that makes you uncomfortable with What Just Happened. Own your blue spot on the big red Microsoft Surface map of the USA. Say it with me now. I don’t like stupid bigot people. Shout!

Wait. A new tweet is on my teleprompter. “2016 will stop sucking right on schedule, midnight 12/31.” Doris in Flint responds: “Um, 2017 will pick it right back up.” Here’s another: “The soul of humanity is eroding like the Florida coastline.” Of course, every generation says something like this when it arrives at The Uncertain Age, the age you become uncertain if the world is a place you still recognize. But let’s not blame His Orangeness. He’s a symptom, small potatoes, a tiny pee-pee and a mail order bride. It’s Internet. Internet is ruining us. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

•   •   •

Declaration: from now on (or at least until the end of this piece) I will no longer allow Internet the dignity of a first name. No more “The.” We’re on a last name basis, same as you call a guy named Bill Jones just “Jones” when you want to disrespect him a little. Call it the Post-Truth Style Guide. I’m going all Louis CK on Internet, only not as funny. (If I was funny, I’d be in a car drinking coffee. Wait. Wrong comedian.)

I’m a little nervous. I’ve been programmed to be afraid of saying that Internet is ruining everything. People will think I’m old. If you don’t believe Internet is making the world better, you are a relic, and being old is right behind being non-white or a girl in America. 

Fuck it. I’m in. The only thing that sucks worse than 2016 is the collective rectal opening we’ve stuck our heads into, called Internet. As sentient humans, we can now exist only by breathing a mix of oxygen and digital fart gas. We’re version 2.0 of the greatest experiment with humanity in history, administered by childless, bro-tivated white guys with checkbooks connected to investment funds.

God, that felt good.

Internet makes me feel more soulless all the time. I’ve said yes to one too many TOS. Everything is a reflection generated to boost an ad metric. “Browse” should be omitted from Internet lexicology: “browse” implies random discovery. Nothing on Internet is random. Every word and phrase is optimized for maximum consumption, both real and fake. That’s what makes it hard to tell the difference. When GF texted me that Prince was dead, I immediately replied, “Hoax.” When I read that Rage Against the Machine would be doing an anti-Trump album, I thought, well, sure.

No content I see happens against my will—I’m a smart guy, and I know how to search incognito or opt out of ad choices. But resistance has indeed become futile. If I want to be informed, I gotta Internet. I occasionally think about disconnecting, but why? If I get off Facebook, cancel my Twitter account, and continue to be clueless about Snapchat, that amounts to choosing to not be a part of modern humanity. Not evolving is not a choice, the same way not blowing your brains out isn’t one. I have friends who say their lives are rich enough without so much Internet, but their thinking seems suspect to me, like the grandfather I had who would not use indoor plumbing. One gentleman I know says, with calm sincerity, “I go off Facebook every year for Lent and it doesn’t affect me one bit.” For Lent? Me, I WANT TO BE AFFECTED. PLEASE TOUCH ME. Loneliness is deadlier than cancer and texting while driving put together. I am left to decide between between tracking, intrusive ads, trolls, zero privacy, and fake news on the one hand, or Lent? Shit. I don’t even believe in the Easter bunny.

I am coming to admit Internet is not what we said. I know I’m late. Ya gotta have faith. Remember when we all said truth will win out, information will be free, transparency will make it impossible for evil men to hide? The ramparts of the gatekeepers would crumble? We’d all be able to publish, start a movement, or build another food delivery app? Now look. We have self-driving cars and the ability to shout out loud to buy detergent, brought to you by another Big Three: Amazon, Google, Apple. The long tail is a vestigial nub on Alexa’s ass.

Internet is more Orwellian than Orwell. It is always watching, compiling what we like, read, buy, think, feel. It is easier than ever for us to be exposed to what we are predisposed to believe. That’s how fake news works.

“The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”


I have been waiting for the word “doublespeak” to make a comeback; “post-truth” became the Oxford word of the year instead. “Doublespeak” calls it what it is. “Post” means after. We knew the truth before? After the election, a Trumpy person, can’t remember which nutty Republican blonde, actually said on camera with a straight face, “There’s no such thing as facts.” Lack of subject-verb agreement aside, this may have been the nearest we got to truth all year. Truth is what autofills in a search box or your feed, superdesigned for hyperindulgence. Thanks, Internet.

Every tap brings a little more dopamine. The perfection of this dosage is called UX, the quest to make everything as effortless as possible under the guise of being friendly and intuitive. I think Internet was better when it was too hard for dumb people to use. The smartphone got Trump elected. Angry people have frictionless ways to say, “Well, yeah!” It used to be, before you posted something angry, you had to walk all the way across the room, log on to a computer, find the spreadsheet with your password, reboot after the Excel crash, log back in, by which time you’d see a cat picture and forget what you were so worked up about. Now trolls can trash your feed with one hand while they cut you off on I-40.

The concept of UX has clearly gone astray. Ease of use has wired me for frustration whenever I have to think and act deliberately. I stand in my kitchen and shake a tiny fist. “This peanut butter jar has bad UX!” I go into Kroger and get my phone out, then feel a little tug of annoyance I can’t find the artichokes with it. I want better UX for everything: parking, the people in front of me at Whole Foods paying with cash, healthcare, tuning out my boss on Monday, anyone’s plaid shirt, empty toilet paper dispensers, airport security. I have a nagging feeling my expectations are out of proportion. Expectations are resentments in waiting. I want the world to open like a flower every time I need a prepackaged four-course-uncooked boxed meal. Surely this is at odds with the spiritual maxim of acceptance. The Pope recently compared Internet to excrement. I unfollowed him.

The biggest news of 2016 wasn’t even news at all, thanks to Internet. It was “fake news.” Senior journalists are now sitting in their home offices, smugly typing “See! See! I told you!” into their freelance pieces. (Disenfranchised journalists are scared and angry as Trumpsters.) They do have a legitimate beef. News has always been what enough people hear and repeat, and Internet makes it easier than ever for people to repeat without thinking. Mainstream media, still powerful enough to amplify, repeats tweets on the air instead of doing much in the way of investigating. One such repetition is that un-fact-checked, prefabricated, manipulative fake news in social media got President Dingbat elected. Zuckerberg said, “That’s unlikely.” I see conflict. The whole business of Facebook is predicated on advertising, which is the repetition of messages that affect people. Zuck is very smart, and he knows he can’t have it both ways. Grudgingly, Something Is Being Done. It looks suspiciously like What Has Already Been Done. Facebook will use a combination of crowdsourcing and fact-checking organizations to make it easier to “flag” stories. Not unpublish them, mind you, but “flag” ‘em. Anyone can flag a story as fake (anyone see a problem here?), and then fact-checking orgs will scramble to verify. They’ll show screen nags: Before you share this story, you might want to know that independent fact-checkers have disputed its accuracy. That oughta work. The old system of human editorialization was clunky, arbitrary, tainted, biased, and often drunk. Yet for all that, at least it defaulted toward veracity: editors kept way more stuff out of the paper than they allowed in. Now Facebook will just say, “Could be fake!” and, “Ka-ching!”

Forgive me, but an aside: did you know that Internet is now auto-generating some of its own news? It reads it, too: bots constantly scan content (both real and otherwise) to place ads, which is one of the ways Google makes so much money. But wait. Other bots click the ads and generate revenue as if people were reading it. People in my line of work, advertising and marketing, call this “ad fraud.” You know when marketing people call something fraudulent, we’re not Post-Truth. We’re Post Irony. The singularity has already happened, all to sell more headphone dongles.

Selling more of anything is going to be hard unless folks can make the cash to pay for it. There’s an engineering answer to that, too: some Silicon Valley minds are putting together an experiment to test Universal Income. Who decides who gets what? How much? Hasn’t this been tried? Russia did it during the Cold War. They wound up with long lines for potatoes and vodka. China saw their wicked hangovers and opted to make iPhones. On the bright side, it’s interesting to see digital engineers notice they’re disrupting what it means to be human (which is, in the end, caring for your fellow man enough to do more than share your Uber). Universal Income smells like another massive Silicon Valley conceit financed by rich people with an empathy deficit. If you want to change the world, bros, use your brains and cash to find ways to stop making people obsolete. Don’t tell us it’s inevitable while you optimize a stipend.

•    •    •

What about me in 2016? Glad you asked. It was decidedly mixed. I started the year unemployed, just three months after going in on a new house with GF. By late summer, we’d split up, there were squirrels in the dryer vents and a loose screw in my dental implant. I turned 60 and learned that I positively, absolutely do not have enough money to retire and keep buying footwear at my accustomed pace. My finance guy delivered his opinion with a vague air of resignation, and my shrink said, “It’s a good thing. You want to die in harness.” I said, “Maybe, but can the leather be Italian?”

By the end of the summer, I joined a healthcare company. The CEO wants more non-healthcare people. He may have gotten more inexperience than he bargained for. I am learning. The first thing I learned is that people in healthcare are not boring. That was something I projected because my internist is so nerdy. Healthcare people are as nuts as marketing people or the hipsters at your nearby co-work space, only in sensible clothes.

The second thing I learned is that healthcare is broken because everyone needs a nap. I have gotten to know a few doctors. You’d have to be certifiable to go through the ordeal of becoming a real, no-shit physician. It’s years of what amounts to hazing. They endure endless marathon shifts and training and internships and residencies on less sleep than a meth addict with a cash advance. I asked a doctor if this is the right way of going about caring for people. Wouldn’t it be better to just have more doctors, slow the hell down, get some fresh eyes on my pancreas? I was told care would actually be compromised because more docs and nurses with shift changes would mean more handoffs, time spent writing stuff up, information garbled, assistants coming up to speed and screwing up. In other words, it’s EXACTLY like marketing, only people die. People in healthcare never say in conference rooms, “This isn’t brain surgery,” just as astronauts never say, “It ain’t rocket science.” Healthcare needs better UX.

So does turning 60. Will a hashtag help me keep up with my lost things? I am leaving a trail of my possessions everywhere I go. I lost three hats in 48 hours on a trip to Philadelphia. On my 60th birthday I woke up and said, “Fuck, 60,” made some coffee and forgot my phone when I left for work. It is a staple of writers to talk about what they’ve learned at decade mileposts. Everything I’ve learned can be summed up in one compound sentence: I can’t find my keys, and I don’t know anything. Just don’t tell me so. We’ll fight. 

Which brings me to my favorite book of the year: “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance. Some folks called it an apology for Trumpism, but it isn’t. It’s a book about outgrowing combativeness and defiance. It got me reflecting on my own roots, which, like Mr. Vance, are in Kentucky. Mine are in the western side, but I had relatives that worked in the mines. My previously mentioned grandfather was a member of the coal miner’s first union, and he never learned to read. My Pa-Paw would have never rooted, as did Trump, for coal to “make a comeback.” He saw many of his friends die of black lung. Mr. Vance’s family reminded me, uncomfortably, of my lesser side. My shrink calls it “that Kentucky shit,” and shit is right, because if I’ve learned anything by this age, it’s that I’m great at two things: flying and fighting. They both yield similar results, just as fear and anger are two sides of the same coin. I’d always dismissed the notion of racial memory, but now I’m not as sure. My mouth gets me into trouble all the time, and I have an intolerable lack of tolerance for things that “don’t go to suit me,” as Mom would have said. 

•   •   •

Is it a wrap? It’s taken the last three weeks of this year to bang this into anything readable, so I’m grateful to any reader who’s made it this far. Happy New Year! More than 200 words is considered a “longread,” which means you didn’t vote for Trump. We can be friends. I’m still having trouble finding a way to finish, though. Apparently, so is 2016. In the last few days, two more celebs have joined the death roll: George Michael, 54, and Carrie Fisher, 60. That number again. I haven’t read any news on how George died, and I’m not sure whether it’d be fake anyway. Carrie had a heart attack on a plane coming back to LA. This was confirmed by tweets from various people saying they’d been on the plane, giving updates, which seemed improper. Even if you are famous and you collapse in public, deplaning via stretcher should merit some degree of privacy by your fellow passengers. Internet, you’re not helping. Carrie and George were bold fighters. They volunteered to confront their dark sides in public so others would feel they were not alone. Two more for the alliance are gone. 2017, we need a new hope. We gotta have faith.

Electric Word Life

The phone made its angry little blurrrt and it was Katie. “Prince just died.” I immediately didn’t believe it. I had two Macbooks open. One of them had been playing James Brown all morning, because I’ve spent the last two days reading James McBride’s new book on the Godfather, Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul. He mentions Prince on page 22 in a discussion of Brown’s profound influence among the Motown greats and blues kingsmen:

“There are other great American pop-music wonders of those years whose work will stand up to history: the extraordinary team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan and Prince come to mind, along with several others.”

The Internet has taught me to beware of hoaxes. Prince passing would be a whopper, I thought, one easy to imagine His Purpleness creating, Him just not wanting to be Him anymore, like James Brown wearied of being James Brown, as every star wearies of the constant nuclear fission required to make the light we take for granted when we dance and shout.

So that’s what I thought. I texted back, “Are you sure?” At that second, a TMZ blurb was the only result in Google search, and even it was hedging a little, saying “someone said” that a corpse had been removed from Paisley Park and it was supposed to be Him. I wasn’t buying it yet. Couldn’t. Then I hit refresh, and the confirmations began.

I acted abnormally normal. I walked to lunch, ordered a taco, and had that feeling you get during world-changing events, the bewilderment at everyone acting like nothing just happened. I felt a bit of maudlin outrage, though I don’t know what I should have expected: that maybe for a few minutes girls would stop coming out to eat in activewear? That the fishing show on the TV over the bar would stop showing fishing, and I don’t know, show something else? What are those people talking about at the next table? Shouldn’t they be crying or at least looking glum over their guacamole?

I ate and held my phone in my left hand, refreshing. The messy awkwardness of the now-with-a-small-“i” internet started to reflect the tumbly, non-sequitur world in the taco bar, as appropos of nothing as a small mouth bass. No one really knows how to act about death except for medical professionals, funeral parlor people, and clergymen, so from that standpoint the Dali-esqueness was unsurprising. Scheduled “content” rolled out among heartfelt RIP’s and single-paragraph recaps. (Evidently His Royalness was not in the obit file. I imagined inexperienced journalists scrambling and Googling together a hasty obit while slightly more experienced editors texted madly for copy.) The Tennessean informed me after five straight Prince tweets that Ms. Cheap’s tip of the day was a “Spirit of #Nashville posters sale.” Good to know. A country artist hawked a new booze product while Google Fiber tweeted, “Avocados don’t just ripen overnight, unless you put ’em in a paper bag with a banana.” My own random synapses fired and in my head I heard, “let’s look for the purple banana til they put us in the truck. Let’s go crazy! Let’s get nuts.”

I will sound like a Luddite when I say I think this is one failure of digital culture, all these pathetic attempts to contentify. Everyone’s a publisher, including actual publishers, so I could sense everyone tiptoeing toward the biggest keyword term since “Bowie” while trying not to sound like they’re doing what they’re doing, which is pimping the man’s passing for clicks. Streams started to warm as my beans and rice cooled, then rushed. Listicles listed, slideshows slid, photos shopped and grammed in a half-auto-generated context of underwear ads and think pieces on demography. And this:

Another declared: “This is not a content opportunity.”

Katie texted, “Why is everyone around here going on as if nothing happened?”

•    •    •

I was, and am little better. I retweeted a few things, including a New Yorker article from 2009 and a lame attempt at a clever hashtag (#ELECTRICWORDLIFE), which I already regret. Since I was alone, I could not resist the typical morbid and professional curiosity that sucks us all to the webs, our basic need to congregate in the face of loss, even if only in hyperspace. I made myself take a breath and slowly read the New Yorker piece, having retweeted it before reading, which is a barely pardonable sin. Then I indulged a memory.

“Let’s Go Crazy.” My mind went back 1984 and the “album-rock” FM radio station I’d just joined after a salad decade at a 1000-watt waffle iron of an AM Top 40 station in Clarksville. The program director who hired me, who went by Smoky (and whose real name was Fred), had been in Top 40, too. He called me into his office to listen to a song called “Controversy,” and another called “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Smoky had a smartass, yukky laugh that would spill out of the side of his mouth and a complete lack of deference for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kansas records. MTV had just turned the world upside-down, and the station was awkwardly playing Duran Duran records alongside “Stairway to Heaven” for the nth time, and Smoky believed we should go where the eye makeup was going. I think he asked me into his office because I’d spent the last decade playing KC and the Sunshine Band records alongside Helen Reddy. I’d also worked in a dance club, and had played “Soft and Wet” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” more times than I could count. “Redd? Hyuk-hyuk. Should we play this? Hyuk.” He pushed a button on the boombox by his phone. I heard an organ. “Dearly be-lov-ed…”

“Hell, yes.” My own lack of deference for request-line callers who wanted to hear “Smoke on the Water” had ebbed pretty quickly after my big move from small-town Top 40 to medium-market rock radio. I wanted to play AC/DC and Prince, and talk over the records. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how anyone with the slightest taste in music didn’t want some actual R&B with their white-bread mainstream REO. Hell, Eddie Van Halen was on “Beat It!” I was jive-assing over song intros—an FM radio no-no in those days—on my 8:00pm-12 midnight stint like a top 40 boss  jock, imitating my radio heroes like an egomaniac who thought he could make the songs sound better simply by introducing them on the air. I wanted to mash things up. Prince was mashing. 

For the record, we did end up playing Prince on that station. Michael Jackson, too. Listeners HATED them. This was Nashville in the 80’s, mind you. People called and used the N-word, as if Led Zeppelin had invented a single lick they’d been riffing since ’68. The afternoon newspaper (yes, Nashville had two newspapers back then, boys and girls), published a scathing article on its front page about the death of rock radio, as if that mattered to anyone at all.

Later on, I became program director of that station. You know what? It did die, though we rode it out through the Pearl Jam years until the owners took it country and sold it to a company that got bought by a company that got bought by a company. And Steve Jobs stood on a stage and said, “One thousand songs in your pocket,” and that was that.

Prince. Michael Jackson. The station played copious amounts of Fagen and Becker, too—I loved them. For years, if people asked me my favorite artist, I would always say, “there are several,” and list Prince among them. At home, I wore out a CD of his 3-disc anthology and a vinyl copy of Sign of the Times. (The live track, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” with Shiela E on drums, is electrifying.) I also saw him perform in the Fox Theatre in Atlanta during the New Power Generation days (you sexy motherfucka!), the night before a snowstorm sent Hot ‘Lanta into lockdown and we were stuck for two days in the Ritz. His entourage was rumored to have had the entire 9th floor, but I never saw him. The night before, during “Purple Rain,” a cloud of actual satin fabric rose petals fluttered from the ceiling. It was maybe the best show I’ve ever seen.

It’s a crazy mashup, this random world. Queen Elizabeth turned 90 today, and she was upstaged by a Prince in Minny who was only 57. I haven’t looked at the latest while I’ve been writing, though Katie sent me a text about a half hour ago that likely has links to more developments. I also have actual paying work I should be doing, but I am thinking that a nice purple playlist and a run outdoors is in order. It just started raining.






The Tunnel

Mom died some weeks back.

I say, “some,” because I am not sure if it was eight, nine, or ten. It was about a month or so ago that my sister said, as we drove to the bank to close Mom’s IRA, “Can you believe it’s already been four weeks since we were sitting in the funeral home making the arrangements?” This is how time feels. I recently read a first-person article in the New York Times by a person who had cared for her own Mom during end-stage cancer. Describing the blurriness of the days, she quoted a nurse who said, “You’re in the tunnel.” That phrase stuck. Mom died of congestive heart failure, not cancer, but Sis and I (fair disclosure: Sis, mostly) had been in the tunnel while Mom went from a routine doc visit to hospital admissions to the cardiac wing to palliative care to hospice. The funny thing about the tunnel is that you don’t remember its actual threshold. Was it last August, when Mom “turned for the worse?” The triple bypass in ‘06? Breast cancer? When Dad was destroyed by pancreatic cancer 19 years ago? It’s all white tile and tubes of light.

I was at home when the news came. Bobbi called, and I experienced an appropriately magnified sense of familial guilt for a trio of reasons. One, I was not there. Two, I was very sleepy because I had just taken an Ambien. Three, I was relieved it was over. Bobbi said she was relieved, too. There were good reasons. Mom died at home. She went peacefully (if not altogether comfortably). She had experienced reconciliations. She wasn’t wearing anyone out anymore. She didn’t suffer a lengthy time of pain or indignity. There was enough money to pay hospice and have her funeral wishes met. We had already seen the will, and knew it was unambiguous and uncomplicated. And, though it may sound indelicate to mention, there was even going to be a bit of estate left after expenses.

As my shrink would later point out, we got off easy. Mom beat Murphy. What’s left is a house full of things, some cash, and a disconcerting, hazy gap where the last how ever many weeks have been. And the memories. We’re still in the tunnel.

Making the arrangements was everything you’d expect, which is to say creepy and surreal. We met a gentleman who must have been the character study for Michael C. Hall’s role in Six Feet Under, down to the expensive dark suit and limp-armed walk. They must teach funeral directors to create as little air disturbance as possible when gliding among the parlors. There will be no whooshing or arm swinging at McCarren and Sons. Be efficient, but never hurry. In one of those odd coincidences of name and appearance, his name was Clete, a thirty-something fellow with the build of a college sportsman. Bobbi and I guessed him to be of the third or fourth generation in the family business. There were several placards reminding us in trustworthy serif typefaces, “We are a family owned and operated funeral home.” We go way back.

He offered cookies. I was confounded by his name and said, trying to be pleasant but merely sounding stupid, “That’s an unusual name.” He gave a practiced deflection and added that what cookies we didn’t eat we could take with us. I continued to imagine patriarchal instruction. Once the bereaved put their hands in the box, the cookies are theirs. This led me to thinking of the rules of restaurant buffets, where one is asked not to reuse a plate when going for seconds. Next, I was recollecting the episode of 6FU where Nate reused a coffin. Clete asked if we’d picked one out from the showroom.

We’d been back there. Teaks and fine woods on the left, metals on the right and in the rear, inexpensive 12-gauge metals on the bottom row, closed, and the better 18-gauge at eye level, open so you could see the embroidered cushions inside. I found myself saying to Bobbi, “Mom wouldn’t like that color. This one has satin, it looks softer. She’d hate that artwork.” Artwork? I learned we needed a $1995 vault to put the $3995 casket in. What’s wrong with this plain concrete one, $900? “It isn’t sealed.” My mind returned to making these same arrangements for Dad in another tunnel, another funeral director solemnly nodding as Mom says, “We have to put the casket in a vault for the day the trumpet sounds and he rises and walks again.” I whispered to Sis, “Don’t you think that when Gabriel shows up God will be able to handle if it’s sealed or not? They are going underground. Miracles, right?” I don’t watch the zombie tv shows, so I don’t know how any of it works. What we did know is my uncle has a job at a funeral home in Georgia, and he’d be bringing his experienced eye to the proceedings. I felt a mild resentment. Peer pressure. What I said was, “Give us the 18-gauge Essex and the Titan vault. That one’s bronze. Can they do it in silver, so they match?”

In the days between Mom’s death and the funeral I caught a stomach virus. I guess that’s what it was. I was baffled. I always thought that “stomach virus” is what lame people say when they’re too hung over to show up for work. I don’t remember anything about the day before the funeral, a Monday. I had planned to go into work—sitting at home sounded like a terrible idea—but bam, there I was, laid-up and home alone. I finally dragged myself out to the north side Kroger to buy canned soup, cheese and crackers, and I remembered why I don’t eat much processed food. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, all packaged up and ready to microwave. I sound like a conspiracy documentarian, but my mother came of age when agriculture exploded into agribusiness and Kraft and Kellogg and the Jolly Green Giant figured out we’d eat anything if it has enough salt, fat, and sugar in it. I grew up eating Van Camp’s Pork and Beans, Frosted Flakes and Little Debbies. We baked Spam and fish sticks and damn near anything else advertised on daytime TV. I once told my trainer I ate Vienna sausages as a boy on car trips and he looked stricken. We drank sodas by the case, too, in returnable bottles, three cents each.

If food contributed to Mom’s death, it wasn’t what got her in the end. By then, she was eating mostly fruit and nuts, having long ago given up her daily coffee and two packs of Tareytons. And if it says congestive heart failure on the death certificate, it was loneliness that closed the lid, taking hold when Dad died 19 years ago at the age of 60. She chose to spend those years alone. It was as certain and slow as anything RJ Reynolds could have marketed and sold. Mom wasn’t a complete hermit—she would see Bobbi and her husband, a few friends, and me—but for the most part she divorced herself from human community. She also suffered from untreated depression, manifest long before she shut herself into her dilapidated home on highway 41. It’s easy for me to be judgmental about her being an isolationist until I remember it’s also my default setting. Going to a shrink, meetings, exercise classes and Whole Foods would have been as alien to her as moondust. She even stopped attending church.

When we finally moved Mom to Nashville five or so years ago, I actually did talk her into trying some senior training sessions at the gym. I ran on a treadmill while she did them. She bagged it after about a half dozen, saying nothing was happening. What I’d hoped was that she’d make some acquaintances, but I let it go. I remember her saying on our first visit, “Don’t you put me in there with the old people.” I completely understood. When I walk past the boomer yoga class at the Y and see a pot bellied guy straining to touch his silver sneakers, I think the same thing. Please. Anywhere but there, God. Then I run downstairs and do burpees so I can pretend 30-something girls might think I’ve still got it.

. . .

The funeral was exactly as Mom wanted it, which was very Southern, very Christian, and a credit to the McCarren and Sons training manual. Mom wasn’t necessarily a traditionalist, except in spiritual matters, where her convictions were far more Pat Robertson than Joel Osteen. It used to bother Bobbi that she watched those nutty preachers so much, sitting in the dark and underlining Bible phrases with a ballpoint. At least she never sent them money.

My stomach was still queasy. Traditional southern funerals are drawn out affairs, and this one was no different, except for the fact that no one brought any food. I briefly hid in the kitchen with a Clif Bar, banana and coffee from an urn that may have been rinsed with embalming fluid. I was practicing slow breathing when Sis stuck her head in and said, “Bill Herndon is here,” and I thought, “OK, I remember him, a friend of Dad’s, but I wonder what I will say to him. ‘Thanks for coming?’” People often remark they don’t know what to say to those who’ve lost loved ones. Next time you think this, remember the person to whom you’re saying whatever it is you’re having trouble saying has no fucking idea what to say back. Mr. Herndon was very gracious, repeating several times, “There are so many great memories,” and while I didn’t doubt it, they were his memories, not mine. I smiled and nodded and tried to keep my banana from bouncing around in my belly like a gestating alien, then went to find a settee.

Variations of this scene repeated for two hours, which seemed like 20. My cousin Harry arrived from Cincinnati in work boots and an electrician’s shirt to inform me “She was a nice lady.” I overheard Aunt Yvonne say to Uncle Waddell, the funeral home brother, whom she calls Charlie, “I took a picture, Charlie. I’m sending it tomorrow. Look at those flowers. They are not fresh.” Meanwhile, other women made remarks about “how good she looks” and flipped the cards on the arrangements to see who sent what. An old girlfriend arrived, once a bartender at a steak house, now a real estate agent. She offered condolences and observed “what she got for that old place probably wasn’t what it was worth.” A convenience store with gas pumps is there now.

All the while, wall-mounted wide screens showed generic scenes of sunrises and streams, since I had put my foot down at the notion of a $500 slideshow of snapshots with Ken Burns effects. We used actual photos pinned to boards on easels. We did buy the guest book: $295. It was a particular sticking point for Sis, who thought it robbery. We all have our triggers.

We were led into the chapel where Cousin Duane spoke before the closed casket. Behind him, another screen showed a loop of a babbling brook in a garden with a screen prompt in the corner I wished someone would make go away: “Press escape.”

Mom wanted words from the Book of Revelation to be read. Duane read them. He’s a sweet, service-oriented man who loves baseball and knows in his heart there’s only one way to get up out of that Titan vault on Judgement Day. He shared anecdotes and made gentle overtures to those of us who’ve not accepted Christ as our savior. He didn’t overdo it, for which I was grateful. He said Mom had been “discombobulated,” which got a laugh, it being a word she would have used. I approve of vocabulary humor. A scratchy speaker system played Judy Collins singing “Amazing Grace.” (I would’ve opted for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” sung by some big black women, but it wasn’t my call.)

We pretended to carry the casket out to the hearse, though it was on a draped dolly. Then we set out with a police escort for Crofton, Kentucky, pop. 900, for the interment.

I drove alone in a Lincoln I’d reserved to motorcade in something more appropos than my Honda Fit. I figured if Mom was going in the Essex, I could at least have a Town Car. I have automobile shame. Clete had hung a great big cardboard “FUNERAL” sign on its rear view mirror and advised me to keep the blinkers on. A hearse with aircraft-grade strobe lights preceded by state troopers isn’t a big enough hint. Kentucky thing, I suppose. After a couple miles I yanked the sign down and turned off the blinkers in a tiny act of defiance. The ticking sounded too much like time. I managed to figure out how to turn on the radio without rear-ending my sister.

In an example of life imitating life, NPR ran a piece on the casket business. Did you know that funeral parlors are legally obligated to use any casket you buy, even ones bought online? Maybe I’ll keep one handy in the attic. You know they’re only going up.

It was muddy and snowy at the cemetery. Plywood had been laid over slicks of cold mud, and the funeral pros wore rubbers over their square-toed comfort dress footwear. The vault and the casket matched. More gentle words were said in the chill air. Then Clete said we were “free to go” and handed a packet of flower seeds to each of us. I slid them in my jacket pocket without looking at them. You just know there was a logo and phone number. Marketing never dies.

Here is a thing we Southerners are not good at: breaking up and getting the fuck on. We dawdle and chat even after we’ve been together for hours hashing and rehashing recipes, relatives and meteorology to a crisp. I was less than talky. We lingered so long I saw them seal the Titan. There was no vaccuum whoosh or click, and I felt robbed. Maybe the seal was just caulk. Down it went, and I heard the diesel engine of a backhoe rev up. The dirty plywood was lifted and a flatbed loaded. A cousin shook my hand and remarked, “Don’t think I’ve ever been to one o’ these where they don’t wait for everyone to leave before they start all ‘at. How you like your Lincoln?”

It is traditional after Southern funerals to gather at the home of a relative for an endless buffet of cold fried chicken and congealed fruit salad. For various reasons of geography, no one had stepped up to coordinate this. I certainly hadn’t; I have a white rug. Word passed that we were to gather at a restaurant in Hoptown. Reservations were phoned after some discussion of the number of guests in our party, which I knew would be over by one. A place called Corral, Sizzlin’ or Barrel wasn’t in the cards. I don’t eat at places with double consonants. Sis wanted to put a giant lily in the Lincoln to take back to Mom’s place after we all had dinner. I said no, that I wouldn’t be joining, following or ferrying. One advantage to being in the immediate family of the deceased: you get a little leeway for antisocial behavior.

I ended up stopping at a Subway. At least there was no buffet. As I draped my jacket over the back of a booth and unwrapped my 6″ turkey, I reflected on a tiny indignity I’d discovered with age: the inability to eat anything with a condiment without wearing some of it afterward. When does that start? A young couple sat in the corner eating sandwiches and saying little, nary a crumb on them. Neither looked as though they’d missed many opportunities for a hoagie or a visit to a tattooist. She displayed a flowing script above a plunging neckline and her gentleman friend wore a flat-brimmed cap above dull, suspicious eyes and a beard tickled by neck vines. I mused about their lives in a mildly judgmental way, remembering how at that age in small town America all I wanted was to get my own place and make grownup decisions about having sex and acquiring permanent body art. Now I’m a 50-something who avoids his family and tries not to get Gulden’s on his good dress shirt.

. . .

I repeat: loneliness killed my mother. Almost every time I called her—less often than I should have—she’d launch into an unbroken sentence that made me feel as claustrophobic as a dentist’s chair. How windy it was and how Aunt Wee Wee was staying with Taylor nearly 24/7 because of his dementia and my fluid is going down but that lasik is killing me and I read in the warnings on the package the side effects get worse with potassium so I can’t eat bananas do you think you could come over and look at the crepe myrtle by the porch the lawn guy is late and he never trims it like I asked. I always recognized those verbal hemorrhages for what they were, both a release and a grab at an opportunity for conversation; what I also understood was how badly isolation had distorted her ability to experience reality. She was aware and more lucid than many, but she also believed the next door neighbor had sacrificed a cat. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that the worst human disease is loneliness, and he was right. It reminds me of a thing I’ve been told on my own journey. “Your head is a dangerous neighborhood. Don’t go up there alone.”

I suppose it is no surprise, then, that when Mom died I did what she would have done. I only told a few people. I tried to trick myself into believing I needed no condolences, company or advice. Who knew there is an actual grieving process? Normal grownups. They even ask about it by name. They ask, “How is the grieving process?”

“Relieved,” I’d say. Surprise! You actually still must do it. I told my business partners and my shrink, but to my usual support group I said nothing. This denied them the opportunity to be helpful and me the support that would have helped me make better judgements. Then I discovered my physical resistance was impaired. I caught a common cold along with an upper respiratory infection and suffered a wicked onset of allergies. Unadvised, I kept going to work and the gym anyway until I fell into an exhausted pile in my bathroom floor. I lost seven pounds, which sounds like a blessing or permission to eat a bacon double cheeseburger until you realize I’m normally a whopping 157-pound guy stretched over a 5’10” frame. I still don’t know if I forgot to eat chocolate or just threw up a lot. If I had been talking to other human beings, maybe one would have said, “Don’t you want to take a day or two off, go to the Belcourt, have a steak and buy a half-dozen totally unneeded shirts at UAL? Soup for you?” All this, of course, was me following the isolationist playbook I learned better than any of the advice I’m giving now, which can be summed up in two words: call somebody.

. . .

The healthcare system is better than you may think.

This will be heresy to many people. I’m supposed to observe what’s wrong. I’ve done that a lot in the tunnel. I can quickly make a list of things I’d like explained, aside from the big issues of Who Has Coverage and How It Gets Paid For: why hospitals are laid out like drunken rat mazes, why nurses speak in first person plural so much (“How are we feeling today?”), why the food looks worse than anything a healthy person would ever put in her mouth, why there are so many overweight people hanging out back of the hospital smoking cigarettes. I can list some peeves, too, the main one being the gaggle of med students following the doctor around trying to look smart and making comments about the sick person as if the person wasn’t lying right there.

Everyone knows the healthcare system is so bonkers only politicians and moneychangers can make it worse; what often gets left out of healthcare “debates” is that there are a lot of people doing hard and heavenly work down in the tunnels. By “heavenly,” I mean what Christians commonly call “the Lord’s work” and agnostics call “service.” Almost all the people I met along Mom’s journey were pretty damned kind, working challenging and impossible hours for nowhere near as much as you’d charge if you had to do it. It’s easy to think going to the hospital ought to be as easy as using Airbnb on an iPhone, but people and diseases are messy. Meanwhile, the rat-maze hallways are staffed day and night by folks who are not getting rich and must explain and re-explain very complicated things to people even more freaked out than the sick ones they love, day in and night out. They are patient, and they are brave.

Case workers outlined what could easily have been an Excel spreadsheet’s worth of end-of-life scenarios while I interrupted and asked abrupt questions. A lady from a company that places people in assisted care facilities arrived within two hours of a phone call to help Sis and me draw decision trees on napkins in the hospital cafeteria without charging a dime. The palliative people were extraordinary. One brought Mom a stuffed dog, one of the few things that made her smile toward the end. We put it in the casket. If anything, I wish the system would help those people do their work more easily and be better rewarded for it, instead of stockholders and executives who get the good parking spots.

I do have a soap box to ascend, too, but it’s not about the healthcare system. It’s about us. Here is my testimony to everyone with elderly people in their lives for whom they may have to decide things: make a plan. Learn the labyrinth now. Make decisions now. Figure out the fucking money now. And if you are old (or even if you’re just middle aged), tell the people who will have to make decisions on your behalf what you want. Making them figure it out on the fly because it makes you feel squirmy is selfish. (For the record, Mom was more buttoned up than we realized in some ways; in others, not at all.)

Wills and powers of attorney are just the beginning. For instance, you may have to learn what a “sniff” (skilled nursing facility) is, where they are, if they have any room, and if you can afford one. These are different from assisted living facilities, which are different from hospice, which is different from professional nursing care, which is different from care-taking. Maybe you know all these things already. We sure didn’t. There’s more. We learned what “POD” means, probate, letters of testamentary. Poor sis learned that constipation is common in the dying and that laxatives should be carefully administered. We learned that you have to wait for someone else to say the dead person is dead and fill out the papers. When you have to learn these things quickly, it is very, very hard. You may think, “I’ll deal with this later.” You sure will. And you will need someone to help you, because your brain will feel like an overripe cantaloupe. Let me reiterate my previous advice. Don’t try this alone.

. . .

Mom’s house is full of things.

It’s unbelievable. What to do with it all? You’ve never seen so many clothes. Mom had style to the end. She was getting compliments on her PJ’s in the hospital. She was a terrific seamstress, too. She had taken a tiny spare bedroom and turned it into a sewing room with fancy devices that make chain-stitches on hems and whatnot. You can barely stand in there. She was also a collector of worthless dishes from yard sales. When I moved her to Nashville five years ago, she asked me if I’d pack her “kitchen things,” and I thought, easy, some china and her precious cast iron skillets, two hours max. I discovered she’d been hiding dishes all over the house, stacked not only in and on buffets and sideboards, but beneath them, behind them, beside them. None of them were worth a hoot. They were what her generation called dime store dishes—plates with big yellow borders and renderings of cartoony fish, ugly earthenware, baby blue melamine. There were incomplete Anchor Hocking glassware sets, random soup tureens and chipped gravy boats. I would hold up a dish from a box buried under a chair and say, “You don’t want these, do you?” She would burst into tears and say, “That’s my turquoise picnic set!” It took me eight hours, three giant rolls of bubble wrap, and every empty liquor store box in Clarksville to pack them up. I was madder than a wet hen. I had thought all the dishes would be liquidated in the estate sale I’d arranged, but she refused to sell any of them. So they made it to her new home in Hermitage, where they remain, stacked in the garage floor to ceiling. Her old Honda Accord will barely fit.

I am learning that the things we leave behind are not necessarily the things we treasure. They take on outsized meaning when we go. For instance, if I die right now someone will discover I have kept a little cedar box shaped like a chest, the kind you find in cheap souvenir shops. It says “Clarksville, Tennessee” on it, and its hasp is broken. Inside is a silver dollar, a piece of quartz, and some coins I didn’t spend when I visited Ireland. The silver dollar came from my maternal grandfather, but the rest is meaningless, including the box. I’ve just never thrown them away.

Things lack context without the people attached. A forgotten key ring or dime store brooch are sudden treasures, while intended heirlooms vanish in attics and vacation hotel rooms. Each of the first four years of my granddaughter’s life, I purchased her a charm on Valentine’s Day from Tiffany and Co. What are the chances she’ll have them at 80 instead of a Walgreen’s hairband? Once, I had Dad’s class ring, Crofton High, 1951. I lost it in an armed robbery. Now I have cheap tie pins and cufflinks he’d probably not thought about for 20 years when he died.

Bobbi keeps going through it all, asking if I want this or that. It’s a search for clues. Why was Mom the way she was? Why are any of us? Parents are a mystery to their children. When Dad died, I went through his truck, and a handful of faded nudie Polaroids of Mom dropped out of the visor onto my lap. That should have left a psychological mark, but I had enough presence of mind to throw them away. I thought it was great that Dad kept Mom where he could just reach up and see her all naughty in whatever Florida roadside hotel they’d been, but I knew it wasn’t a memory that should have passed to me.

I should have known Bobbi would find something. There are birth and death certificates of a sister who apparently died soon after birth. Her name was Jenny. She is buried in Hopkinsville, Kentucky instead of Crofton, where Mom’s Titan was lowered into the ground. According to the dates, Bobbi would have been a year old and I would have been seven when whatever happened happened. I have no recollection of it. The odd thing: it was never mentioned to us. I can only guess that Jenny is another memory we were not intended to have. Was our Dad her Dad? Was it SIDS? What color was her hair? There is no context, just yellowed papers in a shoebox, and somewhere in Hoptown a grave we’ve never seen.

Bobbi sorts on. I accepted two pocket knives and a straight razor made by W.R. Case and Sons of Bradford, PA. Some relatives have held up their hands for this or that piece of furniture. It’s hard for me to see a Barcalounger invoking a meaningful memory, but maybe it will match someone’s decor. I wonder if more surprises are still to come. I picture a scenario: Bobbi is making dinner. She lifts the lid on a soup tureen and discovers a picture of Dad wearing a black leather thong. “Oh!” It would be a perfect reminder of our imperfect histories, shoo out some of the magical thinking about the bits and bobs, show the tarnish on what we clasp so closely. And I picture Sis doing something in a way I have never pictured, a memory not for me. She says to her own husband in an offhand way, “Shall we skip dinner, dear? Let’s go upstairs, and bring your phone. Would you like to take a photograph? Soup will keep.”

Talk to Re:Write Workshop

Here is the text I wrote before the talk I gave at the re:Write Workshop April 18th of this year. It was a conference for aspiring writers called “Celebrating the Courage to Write.” Special thanks to Alice Sullivan and Randy Elrod for asking me out, and to all the folks who listened to me carry on over my allotted time. Speaking is out of my comfort zone, so I had to write down what I thought I would say before I arrived. I said some of it. I also said a bunch of other stuff that’s probably not here. I don’t speak as focused as I write.

Also, I would like to point out that someone tweeted that I said “You can’t read the label of the jar that you’re in.” I didn’t, but I wish I had. It’s pretty good. I will probably start saying it now.

OK, here it all is, including the Incredible Magic bio questions:


I’m Kidd.

I’m all nervous. I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of what I can say that will help you.

I am honored to be here. Thanks to Alice for inviting me to come be a part. I’m going to talk about me. It’s really what I’m best at. I heard a guy once say, “I’m not much, but I’m all I ever think about.”

I feel a little bit like a fraud. There are real writers in the room. Alice is a real writer. All of you are.

Don’t get me wrong—I write. I write on my blog, which is kinda like a guy who makes cupcakes calling himself a pastry chef.

I wrote ad copy and radio promotional spots for years and years. That’s like a guy with a dog calling himself an animal expert.

I also write essays and keep notebooks.

But I am less a professional writer than a guy who makes a living because he can write.

I want to get to know you. Who here has a website?



My day job is helping people, brands and companies tell their stories.

It’s kind of a crazy thing to do. Everyone has trouble doing it, with the exception of really shameless self-promoters. I bet you know some. Don’t they make you uncomfortable?

A person who can really easily say, “I am the best pastry chef in America, I won that cooking show making flaky confectionery things, and chicks in elevators take off their clothes when they learn who I am” is kind of egocentric, right? We’d rather have someone else do it. That’s how I get some of my paying work. Writing the bios.

But most of us have trouble blowing our own horns. We’re too busy being us.



How many of you would rather go to the oral hygienist than write your own bio? Be honest.

What I thought. How many of you like your bio?

OK. Now, if I gave you a half a page of facts about me, a resume, and $500, how many of you could write a book-jacket-sized bio of me by tomorrow afternoon?

See? It’s easier to write about something or someone else. But I’m here to tell you it shouldn’t be. You should be able to crank out your own bio as easy as pie, or if you have a business, be able to say exactly what you do just like that.

“My company makes pastries with icing that will make you feel like you’ve just had sex.”

Or whatever. That’s an example of my one-sentence-without-a-comma rule. More on that directly.

So how do you get out of your own way and write about yourself? It’s a great exercise, because if you can write honestly—ok, maybe not too honestly—about yourself, think how awesome you’ll be when you want to describe a scene or articulate a complex idea in language that readers will both enjoy and understand.

The first thing you can do is pretend you’re someone else. That sounds kinda fake-y, but it may help. When someone asks me to write a bio, I give them the same form every time.

  • name:
  • facebook URL:
  • twitter URL:
  • LinkedIn url:
  • website or blog URL:
  • what you do for a living:
  • other stuff you’ve done for a living:
  • edu:
  • work history:
  • big names you’ve worked with:
  • coolest project you’ve been involved with:
  • What do you do for fun? (Don’t say what you do for a living.)
  • What’s something that turns your crank, that you are passionate about?
  • Tell me a life experience. Anything funny, weird, or anecdotal. For example, “I ran over Taylor Swift’s dog in a parking lot and now I am filled with shame.”
  • Share anything else here. Example: “I own 452 pairs of saddle oxfords and an original Dali portrait.”

That’s it. This is obviously an example for a bio in a creative industry, but you get the gist.

The first 10 questions are all resume-type nuts and bolts stuff, then the next 5 get to your actual identity: cool projects, personal stuff, and anecdotes.

People want to know something juicy about you. If you raise chinchillas, or invented a better mousetrap. The story of the time you caught flu on a safari or broke your brother’s nose playing Twister.

Pretend you’re at a party and someone asked you about yourself and was actually interested.



My first career was broadcasting. I was an overnight DJ, and I also got hired to help write ads in the afternoon. I had a folding table and a Royal manual typewriter. I had to write ads for car dealers and grocery stores. “This week at Piggly Wiggly, bananas are 19 cents a pound. Start your day off right with Cheerios, two for a dollar.” One of the things I learned in radio is to get to the point. That’s the origin of “one sentence without a comma.” We’d have eight seconds to say something.

“Our interview with Alice Sullivan and a chance to win $1000 coming up in just a few minutes. Sports and weather next.”

Now here’s a great exercise. Describe yourself in one sentence without a comma. Bonus points if you don’t have any conjunctions. Pretend you’re on a game show and they just asked you about you.

During my first career, I could do this very easily: “I am a rock and roll broadcaster.” Bam.



I used to critique disc jockeys. DJ’s are kind of a thing of the past, now—someone talking over the music telling the artists and titles and making wisecracks. DJ’s were really conceited. All those people would be listening for their favorite songs, and we’d think we could say something more interesting to them than the music. I would say to DJ’s, “Edit and focus. Say one thing when you interrupt the music. If they stick around til you finish, it will be a miracle.”

I had a morning show host who used to talk a lot. He thought he didn’t have to play any music in the morning, but we weren’t a talk station. I got a lot of complaints. I would say to him, “Edit and focus,” and he’d get really pissed off. I got tired of fighting with him. At the time, there was this horrible southern rock band called .38 Special that had a string of hits. I would say, “If you can be more interesting than .38 Special, you can keep talking.” He ended up going to work for talk radio. Those guys never shut the hell up.

After the radio business, I started writing more. My ex and I started an internet marketing company. Because I could write, I made the website and wrote blogposts and proposals and ad concepts. I was always amazed at how many smart people who came to work for us that couldn’t write a sentence for sour apples. So I did all the writing about eight years, then my wife said I was getting too hard for her to work with. She divorced me and took all the clients.




That kind of brings me where I am today. I was an unemployed creative director who writes. I was scared. I kept trying to write my own website. I thought it’d be easy, and it wasn’t. I had been writing websites and ads for years, so I was mystified it was so hard. I kept making lists of what I do. I had a notebook full of them:

  • I write stories about companies.
  • I consult with companies to help them discover their essence.
  • I can spit out a tagline for your company in two seconds.
  • I help companies understand themselves.
  • If you hire me, I will create compelling content that gets pageviews.
  • I do digital content strategy.
  • I write scripts and ad copy and conceptualize creative campaigns.
  • I run and go to the Y a lot and eat a lot of kale.
  • I’m smart and I get better looking every single day.

I’m making myself dizzy just thinking about it. I forgot my own rule: edit and focus. One sentence without a comma.

The trouble with making lists is that lists are not stories. That, and no one wants to limit themselves, so they keep adding items. Pretty soon, your one-sentence-without-a comma is the longest, most over-punctuated, quadruple-compound sentence in history. Semicolons and em dashes and conjunctions take over, and readers drift off to find the hors d’oeuvres.

Did you see the Twitter “strategy statement” that they released last year?

“Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.”

What the hell is that? It’s a list. Somebody was not willing to leave something out, to let things go. You have to, or you sound like wordy rappinghood. Leaving things out doesn’t mean you aren’t all those other things, just that you’ve decided that if people remember just one thing about you, it is fill-in-the-blank. You can explain the rest later. In more really clear sentences.

I figured out mine after going to take the Duarte Resonate workshop in Silicon Valley. It’s incredible. Almost everything I know about helping present an idea or tell a story with a compelling narrative came from that workshop—that, and my radio career. I went out, spent the day, and by the time I got back home, I had crystallized my story on the airplane on just a few sheets of notebook paper. I recommend it highly. There is a book, too.

Now, I just say,

I help people, brands and companies tell their stories.

Yes, I know it has a comma, and if you’re really a stickler, it lacks the Oxford comma.

You can’t win ‘em all.

Here is your exercise next week. Write your own story.

Start with this:

I am a writer.

An Apology To My Oral Hygienist

Do you feel guilty during your first meal after going to the hygienist? I do. It’s like driving through a puddle after going to the car wash. I was at Turnip Truck yesterday right after a cleaning, thinking next time I see her, I should make an apology. Not for eating or lying about the flossing, but my behavior in general. I’m really not nice on dental day. Let me practice, say it aloud. I saw a TED talk about this, stretching and having a script.

I am sorry, Amanda. Amanda, right? After four years, I oughtta know. I’ve been so boorish. I know I have. I’m sorry I always give grunty, monosyllabic answers to your polite and chipper questions like, “Have you had any major health changes?” Even if they are silly. If I’d had major health changes, I would’t be here getting my teeth cleaned, I’d be getting open heart surgery or sections of my colon removed. I kid. You are nice, and I appreciate what you do all day, which can’t be fun. I bet my mouth is a spring fountain compared to some of the others. Wait’ll you see the guy from Gallatin out in the lobby.

I also appreciate you not using the jet stream tool under my gums since that time I levitated off the chair six inches and knocked $10,000 worth of specialized dental equipment to the floor and crouched in the corner snarling like an attacked baboon. Lizard brain again. I’m seeing a psychologist and going to yoga, so it’s getting better. Ask my girlfriend.

And, I hate to keep fixating on this, Katherine, but can I ask you one more teensy something, since I’m trying to make amends? Thanks. Why do you ask me anything while your hands are way up in there? Is it a secret hygienist thing? I bet you guys have a Facebook group or a happy hour where everyone shares humorous hygienist horror stories over martinis and bushwackers. See how I’m trying to be helpful? Hygienist Humor & Horror is a great name, Brittany.  I normally charge five grand for a naming exercise, extra for alliteration. You can have it gratis. Oh, and be sure to use video, it’ll send your views and likes through the roof. Thought starter: put a camera on that blinding light and no one will ever notice, since our eyes are clamped shut.

Pranking? Awesome. You should definitely do that. Equipment malfunctions could be f’n hilarious. Show them on Fridays. You guys are closed, so it’ll keep your social presence up. You could make the vacuum thingy blow in someone’s mouth, or put big fake blood stains on the bib and exclaim, “Ruh-roh!” Put on a horse head mask right before saying, “All done.” After a couple of Thursday night cocktails, I bet you guys come up with a ton of them. Wait! Stream them Mondays on Meerkat. Get it? Have doc loosen up and play, too. It can be a whole new source of client leads. Healthcare is changing.

Oh, and Sara, one last thing? I really do appreciate you. Can we wait to bill this? My dental lapsed but I’m hoping it’ll be retroactive when it comes back online. That’s a lovely frock. Can I get a toothbrush?

Deliberate Love

There is a recent article in the NYT in which Mandy Len Catron discusses following a simple procedure for intentionally falling in love. The gist of the process, created in a lab 20 years ago by psychologist Arthur Aron, goes like this: two people take turns asking each other a series of gradually more intimate questions (there are 36), then they stare into each others eyes nonstop for four minutes. Presto. She says she tried it, and it worked.

I’ve been able to replicate this feeling in four minutes without the uncomfortable questions and my eyes closed. Does this make me advanced?

The idea of intentional love fascinates me. Ms. Catron qualifies her results, writing, “… I see now that one neither suggests nor agrees to try an experiment designed to create romantic love if one isn’t open to this happening.” Mmmm-hmmm. Still, it is a remarkable notion. Lord knows I’ve been open to romantic love a ton of times and just ended up driving back to the townhouse.


I’m of two minds. One part of me wants to believe in magic. There is something gently depressing about the idea of love being something one can just create, like rubbing two sticks together on a camping trip. On the other hand, believing love will just happen without some sort of personal involvement seems like expecting lightning to hit the kindling right when you’re ready for a weenie roast.

Of course, families have been trying to manage love for centuries. To the sufficiently un-jaded, the idea of grownups saying who’s gonna be with whom is unthinkable; hence Romeo and Juliet and half the rest of romantic English lit. On a lesser sliding scale, there’s your Mom saying things like, “He’s beneath you,” (Williamson County dates Goodletsville) all the way over to “I heard her daddy is poor as a churchmouse, bless his heart” (Belle Meade dates Williamson County). Every kind of reason has been invoked to easy-bake an instant couple: sex, politics, wealth, fame, the pleas of good old fashioned parental wisdom. None ever works. Score one for magic. Romeo just drank the cocktail.

Then there are the types who seem a little bit too methodical about finding a mate, if less so about how to ignite the spark. I always suspect these people are lousy in bed. One glance at a dating website yields plenty of examples: “I’m hoping to meet a man capable of emotional presence, in the $100,000+ income bracket, likes to travel. My faves are Venice, Thailand and Costa Rica. Oh, and Paris.” I once worked with a girl who flatly told me, “I have every intention of marrying up,” and she intended to see the financial statements beforehand, along with his health papers. She married a guy who hung a portrait of Ronald Reagan on the wall of their house next to paintings of his dogs. Not photographs. Paintings. Evidently his health card was better than his political inclinations and sense of decor. Can you imagine having to walk past that thing in your nightie week after week? “Honey, he’s creepy. It’s like his eyes are following me. I’m going to walk the dogs.”

Go to any concert or grocery and you can see plenty of couples who obviously eschewed deliberate qualifications. I’m not talking about the really tall chick with the short guy or the great big girl with Mr. Svelte. I’m talking about the couples who never talk, never dress to be together, and who stare at anything but each other. I shouldn’t take their inventories, but I fancy them as once-upon-a-time crazy, screw-in-the-back seat young lovers who who now know they have nothing more in common than offspring and a like for Italian food. He was once such a cool guy, but now he complains about welfare entitlements and farts while barking affirmations at Hannity on the TV.


That’s why I cringe a little when I hear anyone under 40 is about to get married. I mean, how do you know what you want? I want to shout, “Wait! Therapy FIRST!” One thing you can say about getting older is that you’re either going to obtain the gift of discernment or develop mad skills of self-denial. Grow up a wee bit, and you learn to spot the warning signs, like constantly being out of TP, massive credit card debt, or a compulsive closet organization. You realize there’s a reason why he won’t let you use the guest bath (it’s been clogged for a week) or look in the spare bedroom (I see dead people.) Plus, that whole weird thing with the bear suit.

But back to the m-e-t-h-o-d-o-f-l-o-v-e (bonus points if you get the 80’s musical reference, Daryl): I think that Mr. Aron’s procedure for inducing vulnerability and falling in love are actually as good as any. Most of the questions sound like the good kind of pillow talk: Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it? Except most of us have already let the horse out of the barn by the time we get around to asking. Either way, whether one attempts the 36 questions or trusts to God, Allah, Fate, the Universe, Sex, or the Prime Cactus, when it comes to love, we all end up putting our trust into a clumpy mix of self-will, hope, fear, and faith.

What could possibly go wrong?


Dress Codes

Once in a while, I read pissed-off posts on the socials by people carrying on about dress codes in schools. The offended Moms are usually socially liberal types who profess that their offspring should be able to express themselves sartorially without judgement from Mrs. Grundy. I like these Moms, the faux-libs, because they often dress well and secretly want to have sex in church parking lots in daylight. They want their kids to be free of silly rules. Maybe your Mom was (is) one. I salute her. I, too, like daylight.

Rules are a part of life, though, even in places where breaking them has its own orthodoxy. Take creative industries, for instance. They’re often as rigid, uptight, and conservative as Mrs. Grundy in a reverse, perverse sort of way. If a CEO were to come into the office, scratch his beard, clap and announce that everyone henceforth must wear pressed shirts with collars, crisp dress slacks and polished footwear, there’d be immediate bewilderment and exodus. (Mess with yoga pants and plaid at your peril, young entrepreneur.) Yet we did a photoshoot for the personnel webpage where I work recently, and the number of plaid shirts was striking, like there was—horror—a code.

You will say that the guys dressed like Paul Bunyan by choice instead of edict. I’m colorblind in that range. The results are the same—social acceptance trumps originality almost every time, and it’s 100x more strict than any Victorian scruple. Me, I endorse dress codes of all sorts, because they make it easier subvert loneliness, that most debilitating form of human disease. I especially approve of dress codes at schools. If you think otherwise, I am going to bet you were never so poor or hopeless with regard to clothes that you were an object of shame and ridicule.


I recall junior high school in small town Kentucky. I had three pairs of pants, all too big in the waist, and the school dress code forbade jeans on boys and pants of any sort on the girls. The latter I did not mind, being fascinated with legs and panties, and my pencil found the floor of the aisle of Mr. Long’s math class more often than paper as he droned about decimals and distributive properties. A girl named Mary who liked to wear a white and red striped knit minidress had a naughty habit of intentionally exhibiting of her unmentionables which, I learned, she distributed through the week along a spectrum of various pastels. I became very sophisticated at calculating the percentage of pencil drops which would result in successful glimpses of pink, beige, or baby blue. Later, in college, I would become a math major. I blame Mary.

But my own pants? Awful. (Here is an exercise: try and guess my age from the descriptions I am about to provide.) One pair was tweedish, bell-bottomed, and very scratchy, held up by a belt that drew the loops together about my tiny waist. I had not yet graduated to pant sizes measured in inches, and wore boys size 16 (slim, but never slim enough for my skinny ass). I owned a slightly better fitting pair of slacks, a poly-cotton plaid of orange, tan and burgundy, giant pleats and bell-bottoms cuffs. These I wore more often than the tweedy ones, which were so itchy that I assumed I had an allergy to the strange fiber that Mom said was “just wool,” thinking, maybe the steel kind, like Brillo?

I don’t remember the third pair. I owned no jeans. Levi’s were the britches of cool, older kids, who bought them at a hardware store downtown and hung out at pool halls. Even then, there was that nonsense about wearing them in a bathtub of warm water and walking around until they dried to a custom fit. You thought that Imogene and Willie thought that up? Nope. I tried it when I finally got big enough for Mom to buy me a pair in high school. The pants did, in fact, shrink. They also turned my legs blue, making me look like a starving hypothermia victim.

I describe all this not just to illustrate that dress codes helped me learn about girls. I learned that had they been even more strict, requiring handsome, muscular boys to also bear the humiliation of ill-fitting, itchy pants, I might have been in sympathetic company instead of getting hammered during dodgeball in gym class. Those things hurt. I also probably wouldn’t be working out my childhood issues with madras and tartan in a public forum.


We do not do a service telling young people who don’t have well-developed armor and selfhood they can just wear any ol’ thing and the rest of us will see their inner goodness and love ‘em all the same. Kids are mean, and grownups are often just great big kids. I recall something I read once, to the effect of “never appeal to a man’s better nature; he might not have one.” While trebly true in school, it is exponentially true in the real world. If you don’t believe me, try going to work in zebra striped parachute pants and a purple mullet wig, then step out to the Turnip Truck for lunch, see if anyone sits next to you and strikes up a conversation. Ten bucks says you’ll be lonely before your chowder gets cold.

The cultural aesthetics of modern media are equally rigorous. There is a reason every cool, modern company website scrolls exactly the same way, with parallax full-width images, condensed all-caps typefaces and tasteful accent script. It’s the same one that causes hip restaurants and coffeehouses to all have a certain mix of Brooklyn warehouse and barnwood and hipsters to wear selvedge cuffs, horn rims and work boots.

This reason is called belonging. We recognize visual cues. They make us feel, “Oh, more people like me. Safety here.” There are really very few originals in this world. Almost always, they are loners, fringers, misfits. We celebrate them in ads and pay lip service, but we rarely want to be them. It takes a whole lotta I-don’t-give-a-shit to really, really look and act differently, because people are naturally uncomfortable around genuine originality. We are social animals. We want to survive.

This is where my faux-lib MILFs in de back say, “See? Judge-y!” They argue, rightly, that people should be open minded and not carry around preconceived notions about kids in ripped denim or businessmen wearing the equivalent of rodeo clown suits. That may be true, in some Universe far, far away, but I ask you this: suppose you have a flat tire at 11:00 at night and you notice three kids in hoodies following you down a dark street. Will your pace quicken? Be honest. If, on a second glance, you notice the kids are three blonde female girls with Greek sweatshirts on, will your shoulders relax? Appearances communicate, whether they ought to or not.

The lizard part of our brain is always on. The only way to overcome it is to mingle. That is the best argument for mandated, enforced diversity, which I support anytime and everywhere. No one should glance twice at a man in drag outside of Church Street. Women should be able to code and run companies without having to dress like Marissa Mayer (bless her heart, she looks like she shops at Talbots). Ambisexuals should be able to enlist and shoot guns in combat. Black guys should get elected President…and kids at school should not get shackled by dress codes. A great big middle finger to authority types in the principal’s office! Let us tear down those superficial walls and find an enlightened way to reconcile our reptilian fears and prejudices with our need for security in a more tolerant world.

Let’s, but. Let’s learn the rules of our lesser natures so that we can break them, not innocently pretend they don’t exist. My shrink says, “Innocence is evil,” and it took me a long time to see the sense of that. Being willfully unaware of a lion in the herd will get you eaten, and actually choosing to be a different kind of wildebeest comes with a price in loneliness we’d do better to acknowledge than pretend won’t come due.


Fact is, you accept a uniform every single day. Me, too. Maybe it’s a suit. If you work with people in suits, showing up in a hoodie just makes it that much harder. You’d better have your shit together. It’s harder to fight injustice when you’re unemployed. Showing up a funeral in a seersucker suit and a yellow shirt makes you a disrespectful doodoohead, unless it’s a drunken wake. Perhaps your uniform is jeans and a t-shirt. I work in the creative class, where showing up in a suit would make everyone wonder what the hell is up. I’m also old, so I have to wear casually hip clothes, expensive ones that look randomly put-together or my day slows down ever so slightly. I don’t need the handicap. My shrink again: “People our age have to wear more expensive sunglasses, or they won’t respect us.” It’s that, or face that everything I want to get done in concert with other human beings will have to go through the “did he just wear that yellow shirt to a funeral?” filter. I’d love to put on a tux shirt and pink cowboy boots for a business meeting, but it’d be just another thing. I’ll just wear something wrinkled and Italian and try to get some shit done.

Rather than fight needlessly, let us celebrate the dress codes of the world. And if even we need not rejoice in our own inner judge-y-ness, let us at least acknowledge it. There are rules which define proper attire, and consequences (both good and bad) for flaunting them. Instead of sniggering meanly about a fat girl in too tight a dress (“Bless her heart”) or an old guy in sneakers and a hoodie (“Dude is trying wayyyyy too hard”), let’s be clear and know when to wear the right things, except when we don’t. Then let us know and feel confident, proud emperors and empresses, naked beneath our velvet folds, letting our freak flags fly. Let them wonder if the carpet matches the drapes, or if we motherfuckers is just crazy.


It’s Snowing

Scene: Claire is swiping her iPad, having just just read a blogpost titled “Hello, I’m Abby, and I’m an Umarried Millennial.” She sighs as Drew walks in from the bedroom.

“Let’s not get married.”

“Okay. Where’d that come from?”

“You are using more than one drawer. That makes me nervous.”

“You have Tagliatelle from last Wednesday at Moto turning into a biology specimen in my refrigerator.”

“Throw it out! You also never fold. I love you, No, actually, I don’t. I told you the first night, I wasn’t signing up for underpants. Especially underpants in the machine with my dishtowels. Who DOES that?”

“It wasn’t intentional. I used bleach. I told you I’m not looking for marriage, either. I have my career. Does this mean I can’t be on your data plan? Have you seen my pocket knife?”

“It’s behind the toaster oven.”

“Whatsit doing there?”

“Same thing your undies are doing with the dishtowels? You don’t have a career, you have a bass.”

“God, I love your wit.”

“I know. You need to call Sprint. I took you off the data plan, I meant to tell you yesterday.”

“WHAT? A little notice would have been nice. You really are serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Serious about what?”

“The marriage thing.”

“Oh, Drew. I can’t do this anymore.”

“You said on the way home from Heather and Gray’s wedding we’re a better couple than them!”

“It was summer and I was needy. Now I’m feeling pressured. Your socks are on my floor.”

“It’s your parents, isn’t it? They hate musicians.”

“It’s EVERYTHING! The fucking student loan! The credit cards! Explaining to my friends why you’re always somewhere else! The b-b-b-beard hair all over the sink! The catbox! You never clean the goddamn catbox! And when we stay at your house I feel like an afterthought, you never even change the sheets!”

“OK, ok. But… well, I might as well say it. I’ve been holding it in a while.”

“Holding in what?”

“You’re a little crazy.”

“WHAT?! GET THE FUCK OUT! You, you fucking Xbox-junkie PIG! God, I can’t believe I ever slept with you.”

“I need my router.”

“Take it! Wait! Will Netflix still work?”

“Nope. You can get one online for $19.”

“Can’t you just leave it here?”

“Claire, I told you, I’m a package deal. This is the exact kind of crazy I’m talking about. Is this my controller? What’s this sticky shit on it?”

“Jelly. It’s grape jelly. Is this really how it ends, you yanking out wires from a TV I can’t figure out how to turn on in the first place? I don’t understand my life! It’s too much, Drew. I need love, not a roommate.”

“So you’re saying you want to sleep with other people?”


“Oh. OK, then. You can…you can keep the router.”

“I need my key.”


“Here’s yours. Goodbye, Drew.”

“You know you’ll never see me again.”

“Goodbye, Drew.”

“You wanna watch some porn? Porn always works for us.”

“NO, you dick, get out!”

“Um, one more thing?”


“I’ve been thinking about suicide a lot lately.”

“Then here, take my iPod. Put it on that stupid fucking Dawes song, and go jump off the Shelby Bridge! Take a video! Put it on fucking Vine!”

“Claire, you don’t normally use the F-bomb this much. What’s into you? Besides, that’s stupid, I’ll be dead, how can I put it on Vine?”


“Then they’ll arrest you as an accomplice to a homicide. You’ll be famous, and I’ll just be a cold, waterlogged corpse, still second fiddle to your advanced emotional vulnerability and supreme self awareness.”

“Have you been reading my books again?”

“What books?”

“Wait. You’ve been on my computer, haven’t you? Reading my emails! No one else knows I read the Daily Vinyasa, that was the Tuesday Tao, the vulnerability one.”

“No kidding. Like that Brene Brown thing?”

“No, not like Brene—hey. How do you know about Brene Brown? You ARE reading my emails.”

“No, I’m not. Alan was watching TED videos the other day because he’s still not over Michelle. Man, they’re boring.”

“How’s he doing?”

“He’s kinda depressed.”

“GOOD, he treated her like shit. Go stay with him.”

“Alan has problems with commitment. And I have an apartment, Claire. I know you always hated driving over to East Nashville to stay there, but…”

“You don’t live in East Nashville, you’re in fucking Gallatin, and you have bugs!”

“I do not have bugs.”

“They’re all over your apartment! I almost threw up the last time I used the bathroom. Can we stop talking? I want you to go.”

“OK, yeah, sure. See you around. Sure you don’t wanna watch some porn?”

“Nooooo…. OMIGOD look, it’s snowing. Go get me some bourbon?”

“Um, okay. I need some money. Anything else?”

“Some lotion? I’m out of lotion.”

“That’s two stops.”

“You know what, Drew? Never mind. I’ll go get them. Go on.”

“Okay, okay! I’m gone. See you at the gig tomorrow night?


“I love you.”

I Don’t Have Kids

I wrote this at the behest (and with the encouragement) of Knight Stivender for Holiday 2014 print issue of the magazine 12th & Broad.

I wanted to talk to someone who, like me, has decided to forego parenthood. What’s wrong with us? Anything?

I sometimes have the suspicion real parents secretly dislike the childless. Here in the South, they will not up and say so outright, of course, unless we get caught stealing one of those Mom parking spaces at the mall. But at dinner parties, I fancy I hear them thinking before they ask, “Do you have any kids?”

“No, I decided I wanted a motorcycle instead. You?”

“Three. Two in high school, oldest in rehab.” Pass the salt, you selfish bastard.

I wouldn’t blame them one bit. There they are, carrying on the family name, worrying about money for college, staying up all night with strep, driving to Gulf Shores, attending dance recitals and night court. My worst scheduling issue is whether I can get a table at Josephine.

I decided to splurge on my research and ask my neighbor Kate, because I knew she would not get all prickly. Asking someone why they don’t have kids is dangerous. Kate is a thoughtful and nuanced person who has (to date) been intentionally non-maternal. I emailed her my questions to see if my projections of disdain are unique. She wrote back, “I’ve gotten reproach from time to time. But what has been far more common is others’ lack of confidence in my confidence. I was told many, many times in my 20’s that I would change my mind at 30, that in my 30’s I would change my mind at 40. And since I’m now 40, the unsolicited advice has morphed into ‘hurry up before it’s too late.'”

Looky there. It’s awfully presumptuous for someone to be such a know-it-all about someone’s reproductive intentions. Then again, I have my own prejudices and assumptions. They’re no better.

For instance, my sister and her husband are childless. That sounds pejorative, doesn’t it? I figured I already knew why, but I asked Mom about it anyway during a recent lunch at Cracker Barrel. (It would require a familial closeness we do not enjoy to have just asked Sis directly.) I always figured there was some other thing, you know, a physical reason — which goes to show you that I’m as full of poo as anyone, and (boo on me) not quite the liberal I think I am. Then again, no liberal is.

Mom replied, matter-of-factly as ordering pie, “No, she never wanted to have kids.”

Bam. I stared at the little triangle puzzle, pulled out a yellow golf tee and jumped a red one. I wondered what Mom thinks, having two kids who didn’t want kids. Ya could’na produced one lousy grandkid between the two of ya? You’re killing me and the family tree. That’s my brain for you, imagining Mom with a Jewish accent. She’s a Baptist.

My brain contemplated the number of equidistant holes in a wooden equilateral triangle. Simultaneously: “I have a paternal cousin. Maybe he carried on the seed? I haven’t talked to him in decades.”

What I said aloud was, “Pass the salt?”

*  *  *

My decision to avoid parenting was flawed from the get-go because it was based on limited experience with childhood, which is to say, my own. I didn’t love it.

My parents fought about me a lot. I might not know diddly about parenting, but moms and dads, heed me, for this is truth: you should not fight about your kids where they can hear. It’s mind-warping. The disagreements of Mom and Dad went through the drywall like a sieve. It was always something: me not wanting a haircut, me needing pants, me wanting to go to Grant’s Department Store to buy Dad a birthday present. Each of them would transform into a high-storm discussion of character development. Mom was of the opinion that I should wear cheap Sears back-to-school togs, that a good hair clipping and ass-kicking was what the boy needed. At the age of 8, I asked Dad on a sleepless night, “Did you guys want to have me?” That must have sucked for him. I had no idea what I was asking, of course; I was just conniving to avoid the barber shop.

I nonetheless developed an impression that my mother didn’t like me very much. I know better now; it was simply hard for her to like much of anything. Dad was kind to Mom, to everyone really, but being married to a guy who packed up the family for one small town gig after another to play 45 RPM records and read ad copy for furniture stores can’t have been what she imagined after escaping the farm in Crofton, Ky., pop.900 — much less parlaying her business college degree into a gig working the switchboard at the Frosty Morn meatpacking plant. Her resentment would smolder and erupt in capricious fits of corporal broomsticks and swearing. We are (or were) redheads, all of us.

By the age of 17, I was perfect material for the first girl to touch me there. By 18, Jackie became pregnant. We met in the smoking area (think of that!) of Northwest High School. She was the girlfriend of a friend who would later move away with his Dad to start a hydroponic tomato farm in East Tennessee. His name was Joe. Joe asked me if I’d drive Jackie to school, since I had a car, a black ’69 VW with dome silver hubcaps, rubber floor mats and a redolence of stale pot smoke. He said, “Take care of her,” so I did.

Every weekday, I’d pick up Jackie in the morning and take her home after class, four blocks from our respective homes in a 60’s style subdivision near Ft. Campbell, Ky. It was named, with neither irony nor aspiration, Bel-Air.

Jackie was a runaway. She’d fled a terrible home life involving a beleaguered father and an evil stepmother, a woman partial to vodka and ranting with a butcher knife. She lived with Joe and his parents, which was vaguely weird and scandalous, even for an Army town. People (including me) imagined Joe and Jackie to be the most oversexed teen couple in the whole universe, privy to the great mysteries to which most of us could only pretend acquaintance. They were very quiet. They would arrive at school holding hands, strolling in from the gravel parking lot like they’d been together forever.

The real truth was that Jackie was a virgin until hydroponics, me and my black VW.

I got to know Joe’s mom, since Jackie would invite me in when I took her home. Pro tip: always get in good with the Mom. You know what happened later. We did what Harlequin teens everywhere do when they steal entry to that allegedly earned province of adults, privacy. In an after-school instant we became sex-crazed teenagers. We shoplifted rubbers and Ortho-Creme from the drugstore. They worked until they failed. “I’m late” became “Oh, shit.”

I promised Jackie if she would get an abortion, I would marry her. This is my lifelong shame.

That’s how terrified I was, how hopelessly forlorn, and ignorant. I never sought anyone for advice. Talking to Mom and Dad was (I thought) as out of the question as actually becoming Mom and Dad. To this day I don’t know if Jackie spoke with anyone about it. For myself, I consulted with a long list of rationalizations. I am talented at that. You want to hear some?

I practiced telling them to myself for decades, until I believed them: I was too young to be a dad. My parents always seemed unhappy about being parents. I had no career yet, or money, or means. And on and on and on and on.

But the real reasons were selfishness and fear, two sides of the same contraceptive. I didn’t want any part of trying to do doing something I didn’t know how to do, and I was afraid of what it would take from my future, as if I knew what it was. Ignorance! All I could think was, “anything but THIS, God, please.” You may have heard of foxhole prayers. I said parent trap prayers. And I sold Jackie on the promise of marriage.

I pause now to be sure you do not think I am about to ascend a moral pulpit and make pronouncements about pro-this-or-that. NFW. I would be scorched by lightning in instant. This isn’t a tale of “Oh, what a blunder I made, and my soul is stained for life.” I do not believe life can be neatly prefixed into categories pro and otherwise, however strong my propensity for assumption. I try very hard to not judge decisions others must make. As Everlast sang back in ’98, “God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes.” I remain as wary of moral certainty as I am of innocence, both of which, I think, cause as much evil as anything in the world.

We played out our own version of that shitty Ben Folds song, a song that still causes me to hit skip or change the channel whenever I hear it. Such a terrible, wimpy dirge. It wasn’t Christmas, I did not drown slowly or go to a pawn shop. And I did follow through and marry (see innocence, above).

But first, Jackie moved away with her guardian mother to rejoin Joe’s father (and to my teenaged dismay, Joe) way the hell up in the East Tennessee mountains at the hydroponic tomato farm. It was a growing concern by then, assembled and electrified from mail-order kits — long, translucent half-pipes with rows upon rows of plants fed by pipes of goo. They sat next to a small tobacco plot, a vegetable garden, and a doublewide beside a creek. If Mr. S turned on their lights at night, a glow would fill the valley, and hill folks would say in church on Sunday they’d seen heavenly light, or a UFO.

The nearby burg of Butler had a tiny roadside motel across from a general store with an Eat Shop. You’d park beside a room, walk across and get the key, maybe some Vienna sausage, crackers, and cheese, and retire to a clean but musty room of braided rugs, knotty pinewood and rusty porcelain. Jackie and I made love there often during my fevered teenage visits to “the farm.” I’d push my old black beetle up past Johnson City and Lake Wautauga like I was on a mission to save the world. We’d go in, close the door, put on the chain, and fall on each other only as teens separated by the cruel world will. We’d have screwed in the Volkswagen if that’s what it took. Come to think of it, we did.

For nearly two years, I drove back and forth when I could. I wrote gooey love letters nearly every day, bused tables at the Pancake House, and did weekend graveyard shifts on the AM station where I was learning to be a DJ. I composed gushers of exquisite emotional agony. If I missed a single day, the next missive would begin with lengthy apology and explanation of the details of my dereliction. Meanwhile, every song I played was about us. “The Temptations! And ‘I Can’t Get Next to You!'”

Finally, we went to a mall and bought a pastel-colored gown and two plain rings and got married in that doublewide by a mountain preacher who returned the twenty-dollar bill I offered for his service. We drove to Blowing Rock for a honeymoon. My mother was furious about the whole affair, and Dad only shook his head. I told them both to fuck off and proceeded to show I knew

way more about love and life than they did. It was just Jackie’s parents and a couple of folks in attendance, and Joe. He was decent about it.

Within two years we divorced. When people would ask why, I would say, “We grew apart,” as if I had become jaded and wise by the ripe old age of 21. I probably got the phrase from a movie or a book. I knew nothing. We had made all the mistakes you can make, as if a hormone-fueled, guilt-marriage after a teenage abortion wasn’t enough. We did a couples swap. We did drugs. We bought shit on credit. We had an aquarium and pet finches and house plants in macrame hangers. We ended up in my parents’ attic when I decided to return to school while she waitressed.

I called it quits.

It took a few more husbands, but Jackie has kids and grandkids now. She lives in Colorado. If she reads this, she will probably tell me I have the chronology of this story wrong, or that we never ate vienna sausage and crackers. That’s memory for you. We only see each other on Facebook, now. I have little idea what her life is like. Leaving anything is like taking your hand out of a bucket of water; life just closes back in. A few years back, I sought her out and offered amends for my part in our story, and she was very kind and gracious about it all. She thanked me. That was the last time I saw her.

When I met my second wife she had already had a complete hysterectomy. This is a major score if you’re a guy who’s avoiding parenting, except for this: she already had two children. We fell in love like teenagers, only with better hotels. The story of our marriage is not for now, but I will say I had no idea what step-parenting meant, even less than I knew about abortion or wife-swapping at age 19. I made a galactic mess of it. I cannot in good conscience recommend step-parenting to anyone without the moral fiber of Ghandi or Mother Theresa, and certainly not to anyone with the emotional maturity of a teenager and a nickname implying perpetual adolescence. We lived together a couple of years, married, and I did everything I could to be “the cool step-dad” for eight more years.

Any real Mom or Dad knows you cannot be cool and a parent at the same time. You can switch back and forth quickly, if your switch is good. Mine wasn’t. I was prone to flipping one way or the other at all the wrong times, until the lives of those around me became a tangled, short-circuited mess of resentment, guilt, and irresponsibility without authority. After 10 years the breakers blew for good.

Somewhere in here, maybe now, I am supposed to offer an observation on my life today without children, what I’ve learned. That way this’ll be the only story with hydroponic tomato farming, abortion and a pithy moral platitude you read all day. I can whomp up wistful imagery of a winter evening, me standing in the kitchen, eating ice cream from a carton as snow falls through the branches outside the kitchen window, thinking of a future without kids of my own, all grown with their own kids, stopping in for a guilty-for-not-really-wanting-to-visit visit. Or give you a nice paragraph about decisions made, letting the days go by, borrowing David Byrne: water flowing underground. But there’s one more thing.

It is an autumn day, pleasant enough to sit on the screened-in porch. The infant is on her baby blanket on the painted green floor, and her mom (my stepdaughter) and my future ex have gone into the house. I am yet to hold her or do many granddad-type things, beyond the occasional coo or touch of her tiny fingers. I am afraid of her, and I ashamed of myself for it. She is attempting to roll over, which she hasn’t yet accomplished in her little life. After a tiny but mighty heave she rolls over with a thump of her head on the slatted floor. She is startled and begins to cry. By some sort of grace I overcome my fear, reach down and pick her up. Mom and Mama-G burst out the door, and gently take her from my arms and calm her down.

Since this day, I have loved her. She is six. I do not see her often as I would like. She has spent the night with me only twice in the last couple of years. It’s how things work out. I am still terrified and wound up tighter than a seven-day clock leading up to the days I know I will see her, the way you feel waiting for Christmas or a Ryman concert with the best band in the world.

Always I think: what if I make a mess of it? Or I wonder how to describe our relationship. What’s the word for your ex’s daughter’s child? I have one: it is simply, “Doodle.”

She has a word for me, too. It is “Pops.” She laughs at me a lot. I am a crazy occasional person in her life, a silly rabbit. I giggle and babble and sing silly songs. She skips, I skip. I say yes to anything she asks. I drive her to Philips Toy Mart and climb up with her into the train tower.

Last time, I introduced her to music of James Brown while we were in the car. I am the one that taught her to blow bubbles in her milk, to say, “I got ants in my pants and I need to dance.” And this:

So good (bomp-bomp)

so good (bomp bomp)

cuz I got you.