The Fountain of Youth

Middle age has its share of embarrassments – the uncontrollable girth, the aching joints, the sudden tendency to crank up the volume when Genesis comes on the radio. Come to think of it, still having a radio at all at this stage is an embarrassing sign of aging. But we can also be encouraged by having outgrown certain juvenile attributes. For most of us, the worst of our acne is long behind us, we don’t have to take algebra tests anymore, and thanks to endless reruns on cable television, we no longer think that the Six Million Dollar Man was the greatest show in television history. We’ve wised up and left many of our youthful anxieties behind. As for me, I’m mostly thankful that I don’t throw up much anymore.

As a kid, of course, throwing up is second nature. Somewhere between Sesame Street and naptime, there’s bound to be an afternoon spew. Parents stuff their children with hotdogs and Milk Duds knowing full well they may see them again before the day is over. But the irony is that once kids grow old enough to keep their Cheeze Doodles down for an extended period, they start developing an interest in alcohol. Guzzling ill-gotten Schlitz under the bleachers starts the cycle of hurl all over again, turning teenaged guys and gals right back into erupting infants. You could argue that extending the “spit up” years is one sure-fire method of postponing adulthood.

My teens and early twenties were an alcoholic blur. I generally started my day with a heave and ended it the same way. Fortunately for me, I was good at it. That is, I could toss my syrup with near-silent stealth, immediately refreshed and ready for another tallboy. Often it didn’t even interrupt my drunken monologue on the important issues of the day.

“What are you, stupid? Sheer Heart Attack was a MUCH better album than Night at the Opera! For one thing…hang on a second.”

(Quiet hurl into the nearest trash can.)

“…Brighton Rock alone is worth ten Bohemian Rhapsodies! I oughtta kick you in the dick!”

And this would go on until all the beer was gone and everyone was fully educated on Brian May’s studio achievements. This was my problem with alcohol. I was not a binge drinker – I couldn’t “funnel” beer or anything like that. But I stayed awake and ready for more drunken arguing long after everyone else had gone face-first into the linoleum. And unlike my other boozy friends, an upchuck did not signify an end to the evening’s festivities.

“Get up, you pansies! We still haven’t heard side two of Strange Days yet!”

(I feel sad for those who missed my exotic, pantsless dance to “When the Music’s Over.”)

Most of my friends would quickly binge their way to a volcanic eruption and the dutifully pass out, leaving themselves vulnerable to the magic marker tattoos the rest of us would immediately apply. But me, I was a temperate puker. I could sip and spew between Marlboros until the sun came up. I considered myself a sophisticate. None of that uncouth, projectile firehosing for me. In fact, I once had a dinner date with a charming young lady where I was suddenly forced to turn and toss mid-conversation. Far from ruining the date, it left me recharged and inspired us to exchange witty stories about vomit for the rest of the evening. Booze can relax the restrictions of romance considerably.

A level of self-control can make all the difference. My old drinking companion, Gnat, certainly knew the value of a well-timed hurl. One night in the depths of the 1980s, Gnat and I arrived at a particularly seedy little redneck bar just in time to see a fight breaking out in the parking lot. The largest hayseed brawler was swinging a pool cue and loudly threatening to kick the shit out anyone who came near him. Gnat, who had confessed earlier to “feeling vomitose,” quietly waddled up to the bellowing savage and sprayed all over him. The lummox dropped his cue and retreated several feet. There’s simply no defense against puke.

Gnat could inspire a memorable expulsion from me as well. Once when we were returning from a night of convenience store wine on the beach, I confessed that riding in his passenger seat was making me queasy. He asked me to keep myself bottled up until he could find the best place to pull over. Blind stinking as I was, I had only the vaguest awareness of where I finally released the Kraken. Gnat explained the next day that he had driven me to the front door of House Representative and notorious racist Arthur Ravenel, Jr. My silent purge woke no one.

The frightening part is realizing that, had I been more genetically inclined, I really had the perfect qualifications for functional alcoholism. The rummy who can spew quietly in the men’s room and return to his cubicle without dozing off can continue damaging his liver and still keep his 401K. And at the risk of trivializing the disease of alcoholism, I’d suggest that if you can retire without remembering much about your job, you’ve beaten the system.

But I found the thrill of beer-fueled deviance was gone once I’d attained the legal drinking age, so I gave up the hurling life. These days, getting face-down in a toilet bowl isn’t a mere pause during party time, but the main event of a miserable illness. There’s a lot of sweating and cursing, followed by total collapse, and I find that I’m in no mood to debate the merits of Queen albums when I’m done. I now indulge in regular swigs of Pepto to quell my gastrointestinal rumblings rather than provoking them with Pabst.

Puke is rare in my world today, I’m happy to report. But when I do feel the need to rage against the latrine, whether by flu or by Ferris wheel, I find myself overcome with nostalgia. I sometimes ruminate over glories past, like an aging running back sidelined by a splintered pelvis, wondering what life would’ve been like had I continued honing my hosing skills. My expert timing could’ve come in handy while performing the various public service jobs I’ve had over the years. I dream of disagreements with demanding patrons cut short with a well-aimed blast of indigestibles.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am. Our return policy won’t allow a refund on the Garth Brooks CD you’ve been using as an ashtray. But I can offer you this…”

And if Arthur Ravenel, Jr. failed to recognize me when we meet, I could refresh his memory.


The Mouse That Bored

I woke up in a dingy Super 8 motel, not quite sure where I was. I took a look around, searching my memory for a moment, and realized that no, I hadn’t been double-crossed by a dame in a Chandler novel, I was with my friend, Doug, who was still soundly crashed on the opposite bed. How did we wind up here? I had a vague recollection of being persuaded the night before to drive into Georgia to get tattooed, skin ink being illegal in South Carolina at that time. I had been drunk enough to agree, and crawled into the back seat. This was as much as I could recall.


Someone's in the Kitchen with Angina

When the wife and I moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina a few years ago, I knew what I was getting into. I knew that this was desolate hill country, with only the barest hints of civilization. I knew the locals rejected all efforts at cultural encroachment by outsiders, and that the only community activities that held their interest were Sunday school and high school football. I knew there would be no music scene, no alternative newspaper, not even an FM radio station. I knew that Spartanburg did not produce great composers, Pulitzer-winning journalists or pioneering footwear. Being a Carolinian from birth, I accept the typical Southern disdain for interest or effort as a given.


The Evel Dead

They tell me it's Evel Knievel's birthday today. Coincidentally, I stumbled across a tape of the Evel profile from the Biography channel last week and enjoyed watching the brutish and arrogant Knievel get pummeled over and over again. There was no greater showman. Except maybe this guy.


Get Out of My Dreams and Into My Mylar

I was browsing in the bookstore not long ago, thumbing through the various Kardashian bios that constitute our modern literary offerings, when two teenage girls came dashing around the aisle. They were adorable; rosy-cheeked, sporting sweatshirts and Converse, all wide-eyed and excited about life in a way that adults can only attain by prescription. The first girl stopped in amazement as she spotted the wall of identically-sized manga paperbacks. Her big, brown eyes flashing behind her glasses, her widening smile revealing her parents’ excellent dental plan, she squealed to her friend with girlish glee.

“Oh my GOD!! They have COMICS here!!!!”


The Worth of the Cool

Over the years, with my kneejerk rebellion in full jerk, I’ve resisted adopting any overarching philosophy of life. I don’t think the Golden Rule applies in every situation, I don’t twelve-step my way towards anything and I don’t believe that the world is divided into two kinds of people. I don’t make lemonade out of life’s lemons, I don’t stop to smell the flowers and I don’t hang in there, baby. In fact, I’ve found just about any advice on how to live one’s life usually turns out to be crap. Playing hard to get doesn’t work, and neither does taking it one day at a time. I’ve been faking it until I make it for decades, and not only did I never make it, but felt like a phony in the process. Looking back, I find there’s really only one methodology that I’ve been able to effectively apply to life’s many hassles, and that is to Be Cool.


Zen and the Art of Throwing Away Broken Junk

A few years ago, while exploring the ruins of my grandfather’s shed, I found an old wooden ladder. This was a basic, folding stepladder, covered in paint drips, that my grandfather had likely used for decades of household repair. Nothing exotic about it. But the ladder, though I had never seen it before, had a quality I instantly recognized: a half-assed repair job. The spreader hinge that keeps the ladder locked into place when it unfolds was missing on one side. And my grandfather, rather than spending 89 cents at True Value, had wrapped bailing wire and electrical tape around it in a huge mass as a replacement for the missing part. This struck a familiar chord because it looked like the kind of laughable craftsmanship my father has exhibited over the years, and wasn’t too dissimilar from the sort of ladder repair I might attempt myself.


From Knievel to Krushchev

The full-color book collection of portraits is officially for sale. Get the skinny here.


A Hypochondriac's Cure

Years ago, I discovered a cure for hypochondria. I’d been looking for a cure for most of my life, having suffered from perpetual, obsessive inventory of personal symptoms for decades. The mysterious, internal disease had yet to be diagnosed, but the symptoms were many, ranging from heart palpitations to potentially fatal numbness of the fingers. Sometimes even an intense awareness of my fingers could qualify as a symptom of…something. The anxiety had already driven me from my job as a college art instructor and had eyes to ruin my blossoming career as an unemployed freelance illustrator.


Interviews from the Heart

A couple of years ago I got a call from a Washington Post reporter, asking for an interview. She’d seen some comment I made online about owning a product called TV-B-Gone, a keychain remote that can turn off almost any television, and was writing a story about the device. The interview didn’t go well. I mentioned using the remote at an Applebee’s, and becoming concerned that the waiters who kept turning the TV sets back on would find me out.

 The reporter would ask, “And were you nervous? Was your heart racing?” When I would dismiss this, saying getting busted with the TV B Gone would be no big deal, she would try again. “And were you nervous doing this? Was your heart racing?” Three times she tried this. I knew by the end of the conversation that, since I refused to say that my heart was racing, my quotes would never make the story (I never looked for it).

Recently, I’ve been listening to podcasts of 60 Minutes broadcasts. I hadn’t sampled the show since the mid-90s or thereabouts (when I was working on a caricature of Morley Safer – no internet for me in those days). 60 Minutes was a favorite show when I was a kid, maybe 5th and 6th grade, and if these recent episodes accurately reflect the quality of the program back then, I can see why. 60 Minutes is written on a 5th grade level – simplistic, sensational and emotionally manipulative.

Not that this was any great discovery. I knew these news magazine shows had always been junk, and any old Mike Wallace interviews I’ve run across of Youtube in recent years show clearly that he and his cohorts were TV personalities, first and foremost, not journalists (I think we can blame the TV format itself for that, but that’s a rant for another time). Still, listening to the past ten or twelve weeks worth of shows, I can’t help thinking the 60 Minutes episodes I enjoyed as a kid HAD to be more intelligent than this crap. My memory is notoriously unreliable, prone to nostalgic longings, but I feel pretty certain what I’m hearing now is a downgrade from anything Harry Reasoner presented.

But here’s what killing me. In every single Leslie Stahl report – every single one – Leslie asks the person she’s interviewing if their heart was racing. Was your heart racing when you heard the judges’ verdict? Was your heart racing when Timmy came out of the coma? Was their heart racing when you realized you’d discovered the missing genetic link that could cure tendonitis in elephants? It’s like a verbal tick for Leslie. “Oh my gosh, was your heart racing?” Sure, they all agree. My heart was racing. Chances are good their interviews would never have made it to air if they didn’t confess their racing hearts. And all the 60 Minutes newsgabbers have some variation of this. “What was going through your mind?” Steve Croft will demand. “You must have been terrified.”

Yes, you MUST have been terrified…if you ever hope to get on the tay vay. Are these guys doing news interviews or casting for Hamlet? It seems a certain measure of quotable angst is required for every news story, even for that lowly WP reporter grinding out D-24 fluff about remote controls. This kind of blatant emotionalism makes my blood boil. In fact, you might even say…

Nah, I wouldn’t say that. Not even for Leslie Stahl.


Buzz Stop

In the seventh grade there was a bus stop right outside my house, but I never hung out there. Every morning I snubbed the pale, bookish, grade-grubbing children loitering at the closest stop and walked several blocks to wait for the bus with a much seedier crew of juvenile losers – MY people. Despite the best efforts to designate bus stops according to geographic equality, classism has a way of overriding convenience in the social sphere of middle school.



Midlife Ophiuchus

Insofar as I gave a damn about astrology, I was pretty satisfied with my designation as a Sagittarius, the sign of the lazy, philosophical dreamer who writes poems between naps. The Sagittarius follows his own interests, pursuing higher education to suit his whims, seeking a “big picture” understanding of the world (all the better to dismiss your petty concerns as major bringdowns with the potential to harsh one’s mellow). He craves creative adventure and independence, avoids commitment and lives like a badass motorcycle rebel jonsin’ for kicks.

Hell yeah.


I See Myself Reflected in the Fanboy Stranger

There in the convenience store, he unashamedly purchased the largest soda and the largest bag of cookies.  He flaunted the resulting waistline, wrapped in a t-shirt that trumpeted his love of kiddie krap. He had my beard, my nerdy reading glasses, and if I'm not careful, my gut.  I thought my own geeky indulgences for sugar and Spidey were well-hidden in my public guise.  But the Fanboy Stranger revealed the truth: they recognize us by our shoes.