Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sex, grass, teeth, and sticking around for breakfast

Sex is fun.

It’s also funny.

People are comical in bed. This is not something you would know from watching television or movies where sex is always beautiful, when it’s not dangerous or terribly, terribly sad because it’s with the wrong person or the main character is using sex to self-destruct psychologically, spiritually, or even physically.

Get naked, tangle up your limbs in someone else’s, let go of your inhibitions and good sense and pride, and you will make yourself ridiculous.

Be glad if there are no videos of you in the sack.

Taking a break from my Battlestar Galactica addiction and preparing for the third season of Weeds, which begins in a couple of weeks, I’ve been going back through the first season, catching up on episodes I missed by watching them all from the first to the last, and one thing that’s struck me is that along with its main theme, which is how an essentially amoral society functions with a semblance of order and normalcy through inertia, hypocrisy, and regular infusions of money, lots of money, Weeds is also about how sex is just another part of life where people show themselves up as the weak and foolish animals they are.

Even the gorgeous and impossibly, irresistibly adorable Mary-Louise Parker, who can’t do anything, even aim a gun at a man’s crotch, without it being too cute for words, looks ridiculous when she’s got her legs in the air.

The fact that she’s wearing cowboy boots at the moment is a nice touch, because it’s in character, it’s right for the moment, and it adds to how silly she looks.

In an episode I watched last night, one of Parker’s character Nancy’s neighbors, the mother of her son’s best friend, shows up at the door and within minutes winds up in bed with Nancy’s brother-in-law, Andy.

The neighbor is played by Clare Carey who was last seen by me starring as Craig T. Nelson’s too perky, too spunky, and too permed daughter Kelly on Coach. Here she was again, fifteen years older and several thousands of degrees hotter, more proof that women in their late thirties and early forties are the sexiest creatures on the planet, a fact Weeds offers weekly proof of anyway in the persons of Mary-Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins, a sad fact of life for men around their age because, unless we are really lucky in the woman we married—lucky being she still enjoys our company and can bear the sight of us naked, and I don’t mean for a good laugh---we can’t enjoy their late blossoming without a messy divorce somewhere in the equation, theirs or our own and the emotional and logistical fallout from one or the other or both, which leaves the field open to younger, handsomer, unattached men sexy and beautiful forty year olds can have, and would rather have, with a snap of their fingers, but nevermind.

The sex scene between Carey and Justin Kirk, who plays Andy, is fairly explicit, without being graphic, and erotic but not at all pretty. There’s no romantic music, no flattering lighting, no over-choreographed dancing between carefully arranged sheets. The camera doesn’t swoop in and out, linger and then slowly scan, finding only the actors’ best features and most attractive curves. The scene is pretty much one straight on long shot of two very naked people doing some rigorous bare-assed fucking.

The comedy in the scene, besides the funny bicycling Carey does with her legs, is that Andy, who thinks of himself as the seducer and therefore the one in control, finds himself being out-fucked by this suddenly very demanding, very vocal, and very physical wild animal of a woman who, it turns out, is a biter.

Not a nipper.

She bites. She chomps down and draws blood.

Andy later jokes that if she were to die in a plane crash he could help identify her remains because he’s got her dental records, but she’s scared him, and turned him off. Of course, for reasons of plot I won’t get into here, he has to keep seeing her and fucking her, and now the joke is that each time we see them in bed again Andy has more flaming red bite marks and bruises on various parts of his skin.

Ultimately his body rebels at the abuse and saves itself by shutting down blood flow to his dick. Much to his chagrin and dismay he can’t get it up for Carey anymore, which, considering what we’ve seen of her, would seem to be an impossible violation of the laws of nature.

But the writers of Weeds know people and understand the ridiculous nature of sex.

Carey’s character, Eileen, is by almost every measure perfect. She’s nice, she’s funny, she looks great in and out of clothes. She’s putting no demands on the commitment-phobic Andy. She’s willing to see him just to sleep with him—or not sleep—as the mood strikes without expecting any promises or demonstrations of serious feelings on his part. She clearly loves sex.

But she’s a biter.

Another man might not care. Andy has tender skin and a big ego and he doesn’t like to be that vulnerable to another person’s whims.

Most TV shows and movies don’t deal with this aspect of sex—incompatibility between two people who like each other.

Usually it’s the case that sexual incompatibility is a sign of the main character’s current and temporary bedmate’s character flaws. In comedies it’s just proof that that character is a loser or a weirdo. In more serious movies, mush and dramas, it’s a sign of spiritual incompatibility. In all other cases it’s a sign of that character’s pathological and dangerous strangeness.

Incompatibility and incompetence—and the two often go together obviously, in that incompetence makes for incompatibility, but it works the other way round too; people who are incompatible in bed will be inept and awkward with each other—are the usual features of most casual sex. The sad truth is that you usually can’t tell whether or not you will like having sex with someone until you are having sex with that someone. Good sex between relative strangers is a lucky accident or a sign that one of the partners is gifted teacher and the other a willing and eager and compliant student. Great sex, however, is a like a pas de deux—or if you’ve been lucky, a pas de trois. If you’ve ever been a happy participant in a pas de quatre or more, I don’t want to know about it.—and it takes practice and requires time. The partners have to know each other’s moves. And then there’s the matter of chemistry. You can’t just put any two good dancers on a stage and expect that they will turn out a performance like Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.

Sometimes, no matter how good they have been with other partners, they can’t find a rhythm and wind up stepping on each other’s toes.

Styles clash too.

Most of my own erotic adventures, and misadventures, as a single guy took place between the time I was a junior in high school and my final year of grad school. This means that most every girl I dated was young and relatively inexperienced and I was young and relatively inexperienced. This had its upside in that being young and inexperienced it was generally the case that neither of us recognized how young and inexperienced the other was, which did not cut down on the awkwardness or the comedy, but did keep us from being disappointed. We were glad for what we got. Well, I was, at any rate. I have only their word for it that they were too.

But the other thing about our being young and inexperienced is that we hadn’t yet developed our personal styles and tastes.

When you’re young and inexperienced you’re often too scared to try things or suggest things or to let certain things happen again, things that you might learn later, through more experience, you really, really, really like.

Maybe I was just lucky and dated only reasonably inhibited girls. But I never found myself in bed with a biter.

Or anyone else whose tastes or style struck me as just too weird.

I’m not saying that nobody ever tried anything that could be described as kinky—or that young and relatively inexperienced lovers might think of as kinky—there just was never a moment when I was suddenly thinking Oh my God, this girl is insane!

Now some of these girls were insane. But their insanity expressed itself emotionally not sexually. Which is how it happens that the most embarrassing and awkward sexual memories from my misspent youth aren’t actually sexual but post or pre-coital.

Some Saturday night when I’m feeling lonely and nostalgic and in the mood for making myself miserable I may write a post about a few of those memories.

As it is I’ve written a long post about how I kind of, sort of, maybe, half-heartedly wish I could write a post about a biter or two in my past.

It’s not exactly a regret, but I often wonder what my romantic life would have been like if the blonde hadn’t trapped...um...if I hadn’t fallen in love with the blonde when we were both so young, if I had lived the life of a single guy until I was into my early 30s, dating actual adult women, as opposed to girls on the brink of adulthood or women who were chronologically adult but hadn’t gotten the hang of being an actual adult yet.

Which is to say that I wonder what it would have been like to have slept with a lot of different adult women.

You’ll notice I’m assuming I would have slept with a lot of women. I know, I know. I also think that if I had stuck with baseball past little league I’d have grown up to be the starting center fielder for the New York Mets—Dykstra played it too shallow—and if I’d joined the Navy I’d be an admiral commanding my own battle group right now.

On the other hand, I’m sure that if I’d gone into politics I would never have gotten elected dog catcher anywhere and if I’d become I doctor my name would have become a synonym for malpractice insurance before I was jailed and the AMA took away my license. So give me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to my judging my own potential.

If certain trends that began in my college and grad school days had continued into my late twenties, I would not have become Sam Malone, but to put it as Archie Goodwin would, I’d have shared breakfast with more than a few beautiful women.

And I’d probably have skipped out on breakfast with a few more, because I’d have met my biters.

And no doubt another few more would have skipped out on breakfast with me, having met in me their idea of a biter.

But, and I don’t know whether or not I’m sad to say it, I’ve got no teeth marks on my skin or on my psyche.

If this was a different kind of blog I’d be asking you right now to tell us about the biter in your past.

What’s the weirdest thing anyone ever did with you that made you want to skip out on breakfast?

But this isn’t that kind of blog.

Is it?

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Ratatouille, a complaint

Not ready to review Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but I have a few thoughts about the other movie we saw at the drive-in this trip, Ratatouille, which gave me only one moment of pure joy. There were lots of laughs, easy laughs, I thought, but I didn't love anything I saw on the screen until the final credits began to roll and with them some real cartoons started to appear.

By real cartoons I mean pictures that are drawn by a human hand holding a pen or a pencil or a brush or a piece of chalk or a stick moving in the dirt.

I've always been more impressed by computer animation than taken with it.

The animation in Ratatouille is fine enough, better than Pixar's work in Cars and Finding Nemo. Actually, in style and zip and in approach to characterization through drawing, Ratatouille has more in common with the best of the classic Looney Toons than it has with Toy Story or A Bug's Life.

Monsters Inc is still my favorite Pixar production, closely followed by The Incredibles, both of which also come closer in spirit and effect to the Warner Brothers' hand-drawn work. But it's their stories and their voice work and their jokes that carry the day for me.

I had a problem going into Ratatouille that was going to make it hard for me to enjoy it. The movie spends a lot of time on two things I find very unappealing. Rodents and food.

I'm not sure which put me off more, the rats or the detailed attention to the preparation and cooking of food. I can enjoy a good meal, as long as I am not involved in the actual cooking. Ratatouille took away my appetite for a week.

But when those cartoons appeared at the end I had to ask myself if it wasn't the food or the rats but the computer animation itself that had gotten in the way of my enjoying the movie more.

For a moment or two I was telling myself that I would have liked it more if instead of looking like a hand-drawn cartoon, Ratatouille had truly been hand-drawn.

Seems to me that over the last decade computer animation has been improving in technical achievement while stagnating where it counts most in making movies, telling stories through images. The better the images look on the screen the less interesting they are to look at.

By that reasoning, though, I should love the Shrek movies because they look to me like they were painted with canned peas mashed up and turned to paste.

Almost as soon as I decided I'd have liked Ratatouille better if it had been a "real" cartoon, I was asking myself, Oh yeah, Lance? What cartoon have you ever liked because of the way it was drawn?

Certainly not the so-called classic Disney cartoons of the thirties, forties, and fifties. Even when I was a kid I disliked those. They were so pretty and so tame and so safe as ads for soap. I thought something interesting was happening at Disney during the decade between the release of The Little Mermaid and Tarzan. It wasn't a revival, it was a complete reinvention, as if the animators had said, What would Walt have done and whatever that was let's do the opposite. There was sentimentality, there was schmaltz, there were too many songs by Elton John, but there was verve and there was a sense that the drawings had something to do with the telling of the story---that the way a character was drawn, how action unfolded in drawing after drawing could and should have a roughness in order to call attention to the fact that a cartoon is different from a live-action movie and there's a reason for telling this story through drawings rather than through photographs.

But Disney lost interest in cartoons as soon as they realized they could make more money letting Pixar do all the work and distributing their movies.

But going back over the cartoons they made from the late 80's through the late 90s, I can think of only one I liked for its drawing. Mulan.

And having reached this conclusion, I am now wondering something else. Do I even like cartoons at all?

Those great Warner Brothers cartoons were brilliant essays in economy of line. The animators did more by freezing a moment and having Bugs or Wile E. Coyote hold an expression for a count of five than Disney often did with a hundred beautifully rendered cells.

But I like Bugs Bunny cartoons for Bugs, not for the way Bugs is drawn.

I'm not familiar enough with European and Japanese animation. But right now I can't think of a single cartoon, hand-drawn or computer animated, that I truly like for its look as opposed to its voice work and script.

What about you? What's your favorite animated movie?

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Friday, July 27, 2007

The past is another country

One of the arguments routinely made by the crackpots who insist that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays is that the middle-class nobody from Stratford couldn’t have known as much about the lives of kings and queens as the author of the plays knows.

The flaw in this argument is that most of what we "know" about the lives of kings and queens we know because Shakespeare told us about it.

And the odds are he made it all up.

This is a general problem in trying to figure out what people were like in the past. Most of what we "know" about what they were like we learned from plays and movies and novels and TV shows before we were even aware that there was such a place as the past.

The past isn’t dead; it's not even past, said Faulkner. (Quote corrected, thanks to Mike Schilling.) I love that quote, but the past isn’t exactly here and now, either. It’s a foreign country we can only visit virtually and for which there is no reliable Michelin Guide. Historians do what they can, but most people leave no record of what they’ve felt and thought and how they’ve managed to get through a day, and the people who do leave records tend to be...not exactly representative.

There have been periods throughout history when it was not unusual for an average person to keep a diary and write long, thoughtful letters, but those periods have been rare and the practice has been geographically and culturally limited. Since the invention of writing, most people who have been moved to take up a pen or a quill or a hammer and chisel or to sit down at a keyboard have been oddballs and weirdos, introspective misfits who had time to themselves to write because they didn’t like the company of other people as much as they liked their own or because other people didn’t much care for their company.

Socially gregarious and popular types like Henry James and Marcel Proust are the strangest of ducks in a crowd of strange ducks.

Your average poets and novelists and creative non-fictionalists want to have as much to do with the world outside their own heads as most people want to have to do with cleaning septic tanks.

They are the last people to go to to find out how the world works.

They are often very good on the kinds of truths they can discover through explorations of their own hearts and minds, moral and psychological truths. But when it comes to politics and sociology they get fuzzy.

And it’s not just the case that when writing about how the world outside their heads works they aren’t particularly knowledgeable or insightful. It’s that in novels and plays and short stories and movies and TV shows everything—everything—is in service to the plot.

Their job is to get their main characters from here to there and if the historical or sociological facts of life are in the way, they will have their characters just go around them.

And if the facts aren’t getting in the way, but they aren’t helping either, writers will invent their own facts that will do the job.

So you don’t sit through a production of Hamlet to find out about life in the royal court of Denmark in the late middle ages, or even about life in the court of Queen Elizabeth in the late Renaissance. You do it to find about what’s going on in the heads and hearts of Hamlet and Claudius and Gertrude and Ophelia.

Does Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia tell us anything about the roles of men and women in Shakespeare’s day? Not unless you think that all men in Elizabethan England were mad but north by northwest and all women were emotionally fragile flowers with serious daddy issues.

Last night’s live-blogging of Mad Men over at newcritics, ably and insightfully led by Tom Watson, with assists from some of newcritics’ best and brightest (I can say this with all modesty, because I wasn’t home last night and couldn’t take part) and some outside guests including Mr James Wolcott, produced a savvy and sometimes savage group analysis of the show.

But if there was a theme running through the commentary it was this: How many of the attitudes being dramatized on Mad Men, particularly the attitudes towards women, are historically true to life?

(Dramatized may not be the best word. One point that Wolcott kept bringing up is that last night’s episode was not inherently dramatic. There was no real story.)

Mad Men’s production values force the question.

As Nancy Nall lays out over at her place, the show’s producers and designers have done excellent work in re-creating the look of the world of the organization men in late 1950s New York.

But did they put the same effort into recreating the mindset of the people who lived and worked in the living rooms and offices so faithfully reproduced on the sets of the studio?

Dan Leo decided that at least some of what was coming across was true to life because of the similarities he saw between attitudes in the show and attitudes dramatized in literature from that specific time, particularly the short stories of John Cheever and the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Now, Cheever was one of the best American writers of the last 60 years, and Yates was a fine writer whose collection of short stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, is, I think, the American Dubliners.

But Cheever was a closeted gay man who pretended to be straight and additionally pretended to his family not to be a writer at all. He used to put on a suit and tie every morning, say goodbye to his wife and kids, and go out the door as if he was leaving to catch the train to his office, then go down into the basement of their apartment building where he had set up a table and typewriter to write all day, "returning" home at the time other 9 to 5 dads were returning from their real office jobs.

And Yates was a terrifically angry and self-loathing drunk who had a habit of self-destructing wherever he went. I wish I’d known who he was when I was in college in Boston because he was still alive then, not writing a lick, but available to meet, every night at a bar near campus, where I could have gone to watch him fall off his barstool, an acrobatic feat he was said to perform nightly.

This is to say that while both Cheever and Yates wrote about the suburban and office worker worlds of the late 1950s and early 1960s they were not either of them truly of those worlds.

They were outsiders who had no real desire to become insiders, even imaginatively.

When I was teaching it was an article of faith among the deconstructionist types that I worked with that outsiders were the most insightful critics of a society or culture, outsiders being usually defined not as foreigners but as people from groups marginalized or ostracized within that society, so that the best critics of straight society are gay people, the best critics of male only worlds are women, the best critics of white society are the black and brown people who serve it. This idea, self-serving and self-flattering because who is marginalized and ostracized if not neurotic academic types, doesn’t take into account the emotional damage being caused by being marginalized and ostracized, as if anger, frustration, hatred, and self-loathing are the necessary ingredients to objectivity.

John Cheever and Richard Yates were two of the most unrepresentative middle-class white men alive in 1960 and they produced fiction that expressed their own situations as misfits.

Cheever’s short stories are prose poem dreams of a self he couldn’t be, and Revolutionary Road is a nightmare vision of a life Yates was trying desperately not to have.

You don’t read their stories to find out about life in their time. You read them to find out what their characters are up to.

If the writing on Mad Men seems to be historically accurate because of how well it reflects the work of John Cheever and Richard Yates, it’s probably because what the writers know of life back then they know from reading the likes of John Cheever and Richard Yates.

My feeling is that it doesn’t much matter if the attitudes of the characters in Mad Men are historically correct, any more than it really matters if Tolstoy’s Napoleon matches up with the historians’ Napoleon.

One advertising agency doesn’t represent the whole advertising world, the advertising world isn’t the whole of the business world, the whole of the business world isn’t the whole of the working world, and the whole of the working world isn’t the whole of life.

In other words, there’s a lot of room for the creators of Mad Men to play around in. They are free to say, maybe the stories we’re telling aren’t representative of life in general in the business world of 1960; they are, though, stories about the way things were at this particular agency.

So the question isn’t whether or not anything on the show is historically accurate, but whether or not they are dramatically plausible.

We can’t really know what people in general were thinking and feeling in 1960. But we can know what these characters are thinking and feeling, and knowing that, we can judge whether or not those thoughts and feelings are true to life.

We don’t need to know if these characters are behaving like people did back then. We only need to know whether or not they are behaving like people.

When all’s said and done, a story isn’t compelling because of what it tells us about life back then.

It’s compelling because of what it tells us about life.

Then and now.

The past may be another country, but I need to get around in this one, the present. So my question for the gang at newcritics is this: How well does Mad Men help us navigate through the here and now?

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Traffic Court

I'm innocent! Innocent, I tell you.

Honest. I am. In order for me to have been doing the 47 in the 30 MPH zone the cop said I was doing that night in June when he pulled me over I'd have had to have blown through the red light and taken the turn on two wheels.

The other afternoon I was up in traffic court, pleading not guilty and applying for a court date. This amounted to signing a form I could have signed at home and sent in by mail if I'd read the fine print. But to do it I still had to stand in the long line of other innocent people and pass through the metal detector, glad that unlike the woman ahead of me I had read the poster-sized sign on the front door when I'd driven up to the court house: No Cell Phones Allowed in This Building.

Woman ahead of me had her cell phone with her and was told to take it back out to her car. Man behind me had a paint can and a cereal box. He was allowed to bring both of those in the court room after the bailiff looked them over and asked him, with more genuine curiosity than what kind of weirdo are you exasperation, but still with plenty of the latter, "Why would anybody be bringing an empty paint can into traffic court with them?"

The man, who was around 30, broad and bluff-faced with a receding hairline and round rimless glasses, explained he had been out collecting for a Save the Wetlands cause. His paint can and cereal box were decorated with construction paper pictures of ferns and birds. The paint can was for the donations. The cereal box contained flyers and envelopes and other paperwork. "What's this," asked the bailiff as he went through it, "Your filing cabinet?"

Because I didn't have an actual court date, the bailiff asked me to step over to the side to wait for instructions with another guy who hadn't read the fine print on his ticket either. The other guy had a good excuse. He didn't read or speak any English. He was about 25, thin, deeply sunbrowned, Hispanic, spattered in paint from his shoes up to his cap. The bailiff, a gray haired man in his sixties with a drooping mustache, dealt with the house painter first, and the first thing he did with him was take his cap by the bill and pull it off his head and hand it to him with a look that said in any language, "You're a grown man, you should know better than to come into court dressed like this."

The painter nodded apologetically and did not give the bailiff a look that said, If the town didn't hold court during hours when I have to leave work to get here in time I wouldn't be dressed like this.

The bailiff didn't give me any particular looks at all, not even the Are you that dumb you can't read the fine print look I was expecting. He had me sign the form, warned me not to sign the part where I'd be requesting a deposition from the arresting officer, and sent me on my way, explaining that it would be next month before I'd have to appear, the exact date would come in the mail.

I took one quick last look around the court room. My hope coming in had been that the cop who'd pulled me over wouldn't show. I'm not sure he did. There were eight cops in the court room, with four different uniforms represented---town cop, state trooper, campus police, and sheriff's department. My cop had been a campus cop---I guess their jurisdiction extends into the town roads that pass by the college---but the one in the court room looked a lot shorter than the cop who leaned in my window that night, politely demanding my license and registration.

All the cops were in a jolly mood, laughing and talking together by the empty judge's bench. Traffic court's a regular office party for them. Probably shouldn't count on my cop not showing on my actual court date.

On my way out I met the woman who'd had to return her cell phone to her car huffing and puffing her way up the steep front steps to the court house. She was a stout woman, a retired schoolteacher, it turned out.

"That wasn't nice," she said to me, taking a break on her way up the steps. "That wasn't nice, making me go all the way back to my car. He could have held onto it for me."

"Probably he'd have a dozen cell phones to keep track of if he did," I said, I hope with sympathy.

"What's with that anyway? Why don't they just ask us to shut them off?" But she knew the answer to that one. "Terrorists, right? They're worried I'll use mine to set off a bomb. Do I look like a terrorist? I'm a former schoolteacher! I look like a former schoolteacher, don't I? Me, a terrorist!" And she hurried up the steps into the court house.

I wonder what our old pal Chris the Cop thinks of my chances of convincing the judge of my "innocence" when my time comes.

How about you? What didn't you do they say you did and did you get out of it?

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Unrevenged, a fish story

Towns around here have gotten concerned about nitrogen in the watershed carried there in runoff from leaky septic systems and over-fertilized lawns. By a process I don't quite understand, the nitrogen causes too much plant growth and when those plants die they release oxygen that somehow kills off fish.

The towns have formed an alliance, the Pleasant Bay Resource Management Alliance, to try to reduce the nitrogen levels or at least prevent them from increasing. Volunteers are wading out to check on the levels and I met a couple of them this morning down on the beach at Rock Harbor in Orleans. Husband and wife team. Their field lab was in the trunk of their car and they were using turkey baster-sized syringes to squirt the samples they'd just taken into squat, Tupperware-style plastic jars. They were not scientists themselves, although she used to teach high school biology before she retired.

I first encountered them as I walking down the beach towards the marsh. They were coming arond the rip-rap breakwater, having finished collecting their samples from the boat channel. He was carrying a heavy-looking blue Igloo cooler and she held a legal-sized clipboard jabbed against her hip. On the clipboard were sheets of yellow paper with lots of boxes and graphs. She was a short, wiry, yellow-haired woman approaching 60. He was very tall, with signs of having once been lean and lanky but now giving in to middle-aged spread. His ball cap was pulled down low on his forehead and he was wearing glasses, which made it hard for me to judge his age, but I put him a few years older. Both were wearing shorts and t-shirts, but she had on a pair of yellow rubber beach shoes and he was wearing a pair of plain old sneakers, which meant that he had been wading barefoot while her toes were protected, which had turned out to be bad news for him and lucky for her.

The woman saw the camera in my hand and said, "Too bad you didn't get here with that sooner. You'd have had a heck of a picture."

"What'd I miss?" At that point, because of her scientific-looking clipboard, I was taking them for a pair of biologists and I was thinking exotic marine wildlife---a lost pilot whale, an adventurous seal, even a wandering shark.

"Him," she said jerking her head towards the man. "Falling in."

Then I noticed that he was soaked from the chest down. He grinned sheepishly but I could tell he was still feeling grumpy about his dunking.

She said, "A crab bit him and he fell over."

"Oh no," I said. "Where'd it get you?"

"Toe," he said.

"What kind of crab?"

"Little one."

"Can you eat him?"

"Got away."

"Too bad," I said, "Revenge can be sweet."

He was dead silent.

Wasn't in the mood to laugh about it yet, I guess.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Give these guys a break

Out on my bike, making my way up towards town along Cross Street, guy passes me on his bike with his seven or eight year old daughter on a tag-a-long behind him.

I'd heard them coming up. They were having a conversation. He was telling her about Mopeds. Nothing in what he was saying. The words were right. A father telling his little girl about a fad from when he was her age. But the tone was off. And when pulls past me and says first, "Passing on your left," and then "Good morning," the tone of that good morning is off too.

There's an edge, a coldness---a low growl under the words. I know this tone. It's a familiar sound down here. I know it but I don't know it. I can't explain it. I hear it from men just like this one, men in their thirties and early forties, close-shaved, short-haired, neat, gray-skinned under their tans, if they have tans. Something about them suggests both competence and desperation, money and anxiety. I think of them as business types, stockbrokers, corporate attorneys, number crunchers of various kinds, because I see in them the vestiges of the frat guys I knew in college who were business majors and pre-law. Not the beer-drinking louts. The driven guys. The smart, hard-working guys who never seemed able to relax and enjoy a conversation. They were always sizing you up, looking for an advantage, waiting for that moment to tell you what they knew, what they were planning, how they were going in the right direction and from the sounds of things you weren't.

If they'd had a motto, it would have been, Here's what I'd do better if I were you.

I don't know that the men I'm hearing are these guys half a lifetime on. I'm just saying they look like they could have been them.

Whoever they are, wherever I see them, whatever company they're in, they speak with that edge. They use that tone that's always slightly off, with their wives, with their kids, with their friends, with store clerks and waitresses, with strangers they're passing the time of day with, even when they're trying to be polite and friendly, as this guy was.

You don't see them everywhere. They're almost never at the beach. Hardly ever in a bookstore. If they're in the stands at the ball games they don't talk so I can't pick them out of the crowd by their voices. I never run into them on my late walks around town.

They're at the restaurants, usually for dinner, trying not to be brusque with their servers. Sometimes you'll meet up with one in the late afternoon, waiting with the kids outside of a store, growing impatient with their kids' impatience. Mostly, though, you see them in the early mornings. They'll be out for a run or a bike ride. They'll be hurrying back to wherever they're staying with a cardboard tray full of coffee and bagels. They'll be at the coffee shop, with a stroller, a dog, a sleepy-looking young teenager, looking not so much sleepy themselves as just drained---and when you meet up with them at these times they don't talk, not even to say good morning, they just nod. To the baristas behind the counter they grunt and hold up the paper cup they're about to fill from one of the self-serve carafes.

You don't have to hear them to recognize them though, because besides their reflexively challenging voices---challenged's the better word, the edge is defensive---they're identifiable by their looks of distraction. They're here but they're not here. Their eyes aren't on what's in front of them. They're thinking of other things, serious things, things they'd rather not have to be thinking about, but things that have to be thought about nonetheless because that's what guys like them do, think about hard and serious things.

I wish I knew what those things are.

Work? The office? Maybe other people they'd rather be with. The guys from work? A woman from work? Are they that uncomfortable, feeling stuck with their families for whole days on end? Are their lives so built around their jobs that they don't know how to relax, don't to how to talk to anyone who's not part of their work. In our service economy other people are our tools. I'm not saying they're objects. I'm saying that we can only get our work done by going through other people, which must infect our perception of people with a certain utilitarianism. If a person isn't being useful to us, why is he taking up our time? For some of us this becomes a habit that's hard to drop even with the spouse and kids.

I said I think of these men as business types because of the guys I used to know they remind me of. But they are a business type, not the business type. There's a lot of money down here, which means the town must be crawling with people who make it by the sackful and plenty of them must be lawyers, stockbrokers, numbers-crunchers of various types. Not all of them use this tone, wear that look. And a lot of them must be women and I never hear any women using the tone, wearing the look. Women here fall into two groups, those who are friendly and those who aren't. There aren't any who are trying to be friendly but can't manage it for whatever reason, like these guys.

I sometimes think it's just the case that they don't know how to relax. They can't leave work at the office.

But maybe it's not that they don't know how, it's that they don't dare.

Maybe it's that they're not allowed to.

I'm here on vacation. They're here because their families are on vacation.

They have a day or two off so they've come down to be with the family even though they feel they shouldn't. It's going to catch up with them somehow. They're going to pay for the time they've taken away from work. If they've got the whole week, it's an illusion that they've gotten away.

When this guy on his bike and his daughter get back to the house they're supposed to be vacationing in there'll be a package from FedEx or some email or a voice mail waiting, demanding his attention now.

Come to think of it, maybe I'm not observing a type at all.

Maybe I'm witnessing an effect.

An effect caused by a different type. A type of boss.

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