tricks and treats

Not sure why, but as a kid I never did the dress up ‘trick or treat’ thing, probably because even when I was very young, I was a nerd. I started playing the clarinet when I was ten years old. Instead of, say, learning how to interact with my peers and develop healthy friendships. I didn’t take part in a lot of normal, typical-growing-up cultural memes (you remember, before ‘memes’ were called ‘memes’ , and were just called ‘stuff a lot of people did that other people did first?’) No, but there is a plaque with a red ribbon that says I read forty books in first grade. Hmmm…now why was I a virgin till I was twenty?

When I got to college, I finally learned how to cut loose—sure, I was a cybernetics major living in a dorm, but oh, lemme tell ya–I could do some crazy shit. Got into a prank war with a roommate. It started when he thought it would be fun to mess with my record collection. Now, I had something like seven hundred vinyl albums, and I was (okay, still am) kinda anal-retentive. Of course they were alphabetized. And sorted by genre.

So one day he screws up my albums, and I put his pillowcase in the freezer before he comes home. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to—anyway, you get the point.

I did drag once, in college, on Halloween. Being a culturally aware, sophisticated, twenty-first century  bisexual, I realize that Halloween is the one night when closeted queens get to let their freak flags fly and nurture their inner Grace Kelly. Back then, I just thought it would be funny. (warning: frightening images ahead) So I’m hanging out in the dorm lounge in a kinda springy floral print sundress and big floppy hat, and a girl who lived on my floor says “I’d kill to have calves like yours.” Though I’ve never done drag since, it’s nice to know I had options.

As an adult, I loathe Halloween. If it’s not drunk frat boys wandering around in Uptown made up as zombies, it’s drunk frat boys yelling at women wandering around in Uptown  made up as slutty nurses. Okay, maybe my problem is with drunk frat boys. But you’d have a problem with them too if you lived in a dorm and they kept pulling the fire alarm at three in the morning when you had an organic chemistry test the next morning at eight.

As a single adult, Halloween sucks because if it’s the one day when if you’ve chosen not to have obnoxious children, they get delivered to your door. I think the first time I realized I had become a ‘grownup,’ that I was now on the other side, was a Halloween night a couple years ago, when a couple of adorable moppets mocked the candy I was giving them. “Don’t you have anything else?” As I shut the door, I actually thought to myself “When I was their age” and muttered the word ‘ungrateful.’ The transformation was complete. I had become my stepdad. And by the way, when I was their age, I would have been happy with an Abba-Zabba bar.

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mom, out of nowhere

Every so often, a particular word or phrase, something that would not normally bother me, becomes as irritating as a credit card robocall. This week’s winner is that old euphemism for dying, when someone says “I lost my mom this week.”

My mom died in 1984, but I most assuredly didn’t lose her. In fact, I’ve felt her presence a lot lately. It’s not the anniversary of her death, or her birthday, or some other significant time that invites her back. She just seems to show up.

So today, for no particular reason, Mom shows up. I’m at my desk ready to write my next book, and out of nowhere I hear “Turn on a light. You’re gonna ruin your eyes.”

I think it’s funny how moms can make such huge leaps from action to consequence. I can’t count the number of times my mom told me that something I was doing would, inexorably, lead to me breaking my neck. “Don’t walk out there without shoes—you’ll fall and break your neck.” “Stop running in the house—you’re gonna trip and break your neck.” “Get off that fence, you’re gonna break your neck!”

Really, mom? Do broken necks run in the family? Are our neighborhood’s lawns littered with the sprawled, misshapen bodies of kids with broken necks? I’m just saying, there have to have been a few times when a kid ran in the house and nothing bad happened. Another one I never understood was “Put on a shirt—you’re making me cold.” And I would dutifully put on a shirt. And that’s the kinda Bizarro World logic that ALWAYS worked with me! Never once did I say, “That’s impossible, Mom. What I’m wearing doesn’t change the temperature!”

With apologies to my more sensitive readers, my mom was a ‘broad,’ in the best sense of the word. You had to work past quite a few layers of gruff to get to the woman who baked sixty dozen cookies for family and friends every Christmas. I truly believe I inherited my love of New York from her: out of Astoria, Queens, working at the Bulova Watch factory at fifteen to support her family, my mom was the genuine article—a New Yorker.

And tough? Until she quit to devote her time to raising me, she was what is sometimes called a Licensed Vocational Nurse. She explained her job description this way: she did the work the doctors felt they were too important to do, and that the RNs didn’t have time to do. If someone from the psych ward broke his restraints and ran naked out of the hospital, she was the one who would tackle him. Great gig.

She wasn’t wild about the whole showbiz thing. But the only career advice I remember getting from her was “I don’t care if you want to be a ditchdigger, as long as you’re the best damn ditchdigger you can be.” Again with the no-middle-ground thing, mom. Just because I don’t want to be a doctor, doesn’t mean the only other option for me is working next to people in orange jumpsuits fulfilling their community service by the side of the freeway!

It’s not like Mom didn’t think I had talent; in fact, she was the biggest booster of my writing aspirations, starting with my first full-length story, written when I was in fourth grade, “The Adventures of Pat P. Pencil.” But performing? I remember her saying, “I just don’t want you to end up working in the chorus your whole life not making any money.” Sometimes I really hate how smart Mom was.

My mother had a bit of a temper. And we fought a lot. She loved saying ‘dammit!’ between drags of her odd-looking More cigarettes (brown paper, exotically thin and long). Yet I don’t think I ever saw her look as crestfallen as she did the first time she heard me swear back. The only other time I remember really feeling her disappointment was the first time I came home in the wee small hours. And she waited up for me.

I closed the grill at the McDonald’s and decided go with a group of kids to a party after work. Now understand, part of Mom’s reaction was due to the fact that I had never been the kind of teenager that did…anything. My only social life was the marching band, and the only time I had been drunk was at a family wedding when my uncle (her brother) kept pouring me Crown Royal and Coke so I could show I was a man at fourteen. Quick—spot the dysfunctional person in this picture!

So, I get to our house around 4AM, and discovered an important law of physics. The more quietly you attempt to turn a key in a lock, the more noise you will make. I get inside, there’s Mom in a bathrobe, and all she says is, “Good night.” But TO THIS DAY I remember the waves of disappointment hitting me, and me getting sucked into a riptide of let-down.

She wouldn’t have been upset by the fact that I’d been drinking, although she was a tee-totaller. Mom only drank on New Year’s Eve. Three vodka stingers. But in a classic example of mom-think, the first time I asked if I could go to a party, that afternoon, when I came home from school, I saw on the kitchen table three bottles of booze. Mom’s reasoning? If you’re gonna drink tonight, you can have as much as you want…here. With Mom watching. Yeah, that’ll be fun. Needless to say, I didn’t go to the party.

I think my mom missed her calling. She should have been in a position of power, because she could have solved a lot of world problems, just by being herself. The only political comment I remember from her was her take on the crisis in Northern Ireland. To which she suggested: “The Pope should just excommunicate all the Catholics who keep fighting.” And maybe the world needs some of my mom’s approach today.

When my cousin and I fought over an Etch-A-Sketch, my mom’s solution was to take it away from both of us. “Now neither of yous get to play with it.” Imagine my mom as a special envoy to the Middle East. She would say “Alright…you Israelis and Palestinians can’t work out a way to play without fighting? Now none of you get to have Gaza. How does that suit ya?”

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apartment roulette

After living in Chicago for three years, and in Minneapolis for eight years before that, when I came back to Minneapolis I was kinda freaked to realize that I had turned into—a midwestern guy. Sweet Jesus at the State Fair! Grew up in SoCal, always loved New York, and apparently finding my true home simply required splitting the difference, geographically.

By the way, I loved Chicago. It had everything I liked about New York, but was cheaper and had nicer people. Granted, I could never find a decent deli that knew how to make egg salad like Murray’s, but Chicago has a heart and a soul that feels just about right. Besides, my two favorite spectator sports are baseball and politics, and there ain’t nothin’ like Chicago for sheer surrealism in both. Following the Cubs AND livin’ in the land of Daley—now that’s a veritable carnival of weird, and as a writer, it was like gold.

I was a bit put off by the notion of settling, once and for all, in Minneapolis. I don’t mind Minneapolis, in the way one doesn’t mind eating a casserole (sorry–‘hot dish’), or a comfortable pair of Dockers—they serve a purpose, they won’t annoy anybody, but they won’t ever thrill you, like lobster bisque would, or…whatever the thrilling analogy to Dockers would be.

And yet, I’ve decided I’m good with ‘comfortable.’ Sure, as a writer, I wanted the diversity of New York, and in Minneapolis, a diverse neighborhood means a mix of Norwegians AND Swedes, (it’s not so much a melting pot as it is a nice layer cake). But trying to find a place to live in New York was like trying to find Middle Earth on a map.

The Girlfriend and I might be looking for another place here soon, and I am so glad I don’t have to look alone, because that process can kick your ass. When I last tried to move to New York, I realized I probably wasn’t gonna find a place I could afford in Manhattan, so I started looking at Craigslist for roommate listings near New York that might be affordable.  Now I hadn’tt spent much time in the Outer Boroughs (which always sounds like where you’d get exiled to in Soviet-era Russia), but I had seen a couple of Spike Lee films, so I figured I’ve got a handle on the area, and as far as knowing my way around Jersey, I have “Clerks” on DVD.

There are some phrases you see in more than a few roommate ads, and I guess it’s been a while since I’ve looked into shared housing, but some of them seem a little strange. I think my favorite is when the person posting asks for “no drama,” which puts me in a bit of a quandary as an actor. Does that mean I can’t rehearse at home, or just that I can’t actually mount a full production of “Death Of A Salesman” in the common area? And I’m a little put off if all the roommates in the place are described as mellow, or as the kids say, ‘chill’–I’d be worried I’d be walking onto the set of a Judd Apatow movie. Do I watch too many movies? Anyway, if a couple of the guys living there were a little less ‘chill,’ they probably wouldn’t have to look for a roommate. I also saw a variation of this (which I hope was a typo) that described two ‘chilled’ girls…

I was actually offended by one ad. Guy in his twenties, great place, great location, and right as a I was visualizing moving my suitcases in and learning the schedule of the J train, he writes “please be around my age, older people tend to be set in their ways, and that’s a drag to live around”…I was actually gonna send him a nasty email, but I remembered my tv shows were on, and I never miss my “CSI.”

There was also a listing which might be the best example of ‘TMI’ I’ve ever read. Spent a little time looking at the Philadelphia listings (hey, it’s only an hour and a half by train), and was really tempted by an apartment that was listed right in the heart of the city. Free internet. free laundry, five minute walk to the commuter train, and this:

A cat lives there already that will fight other cats. A former roommate once took heroin and passed out in the middle of the night with the oven on. For obvious reasons, she’s been replaced.

First, note that the cat WILL fight other cats. Not ‘might.’ It will–as if, that’s what they have it for. Secondly…the roommate. Couldn’t just say she’s moved out, no, we needed the pulp novel, Billie Holliday visual. Yeah, she was replaced, but it doesn’t say whether they replaced her with another junkie who just doesn’t attempt any baking. While you’re at it, you might want to replace the cat. Oddly enough, this ad didn’t say ‘no drama.’

On a lighter note, I’ll share my favorite typos. One place seemed charming, and I think they meant ‘large’ furnished apartment, but the headline clearly said the apartment was ‘MARGE FURNISHED.” I imagine moving in, and there’s Marge–because, well, nobody had the heart to ask her to leave.

And my favorite–an apartment that conveniently has a ‘laundrymoat.” I’m thinking this may not even be a typo, but some medieval-inspired building feature, designed to prevent tenants from other building from taking your stuff out of the dryer. And that really couldn’t be a typo–I mean the ‘o’ isn’t near the ‘m’ or the ‘a’ on the keyboard!  They must actually have a ‘laundrymoat‘! I never pursued it, though–they might have a laundrymoat, but unless they have a security drawbridge, I wouldn’t have felt safe. It was New York after all.

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me and al capone

One of the most under-reported stories of Tax Day  is that I filed my tax returns. You know, the yearly ritual of teeth-gnashing, hand-wringing and misdirected whining that everyone goes through. Well, until this week, that was everyone but me. The IRS even has a term for me (makes sense–we have plenty of terms for them)–I am known as a Chronic Non-Filer. Believe it or not, I am fifty-one years old and had never, until 2009, told the government how much money I made.

When I first started making money as a comic, I wasn’t really clear on how to file with that kind of freelance income. Then, as each year passed, I became afraid to file, thinking than once I started the paper trail, I would be in some serious trouble. After all, this is how they got Capone–not the stealing, or the killing people, but the tax thing.

What’s ridiculous about this is it’s not like I was leading a Capone-like life. When I was on the road as a comedian, the most I ever stole was some hotel towels, and other than metaphorically, I killed nobody. I wasn’texactly hiding from a reign of scandal and terror (although I have often thought that I’m just not famous enough to know if I fathered any children–when I’m huge, that’s when I’ll get the letters saying “I was a waitress at a the Chuckle Hut in East Des Moines in 1987, and here’s a picture of our son–send money”).

I also never made enough money to have to PAY taxes. Even in my best years, I would frequently get bailed out by various friends and “the kindness of strangers” (It’s so much easier to pull of Blanche Dubois now that I’m a tired old queen). I wasn’t hiding all of my vast income in some offshore unmarked account–I put most of my ‘assets’ into the pockets of my weed dealer and the CD store  at the mall in the town where I was performing.

The IRS never contacted me–I’d like to think changing my stage name twice and moving every year and a half  made me more elusive, but that’s ego talking. I changed my name because I thought of one I liked better, and I usually moved because I ran out of money and–had to. The reality is that one occasionally employed guy telling jokes in bars for a hundred bucks and a couple of drinks just wasn’t a priority for the Federal Government. I feel so insignificant.

I realized a while back that I was actually living ‘off the grid’. Now unlike the Unabomber, I didn’t have the discipline to write a manifesto, and unlike Jack Bauer, I wasn’t using my fringe status to infiltrate any terrorist organizations. Frankly, I’m just too lazy to make the most of being off the grid. Then there’s the issue of my politics. Anyone who knows me would vouch for my lefty sensibilities–as far as I’ve always been concerned, to paraphrase Jefferson, “that government which governs best spends buttloads of money building really cool things”.

When friends would confront me about this (ok, they usually were confronting me about money I owed them, but that’s not the point here), I acknowledged it would be more consistent with my politics if I, oh, paid into the system I supported, but I always said that I’d deal with my tax status ‘next year’.

Well, next year became this year, and I’ve started the paper trail. Of course, now I’m afraid that I’m gonna have to do all those other grownup things I’ve dodged on my blithely blissful bohemian path–like I’m worried that when I get my refund check, in the same envelope will be directions to my house in the burbs , the names of my wife and children, and a Home Depot credit card. I suppose to assuage my fear of growing up, I could take the refund I’m expecting and piss it away–buy a few hundred Powerball tickets (you can’t win if you don’t play!) or fly to L.A. just to have a drink with some old college buddies.

When the Tea Party protests started, I couldn’t help but relish the ironic juxtaposition with my life. Here were thousands of people protesting the very thing for which I had finally signed up. But that’s me–I’ve always been a little back-asswards. Or maybe I’m just a rebel. Yeah, that’s it–I’m a rebel.

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a nice jewish goy

I was not raised in a religious family. My mother was nominally an Episcopalian, but she hadn’t been to church for years, and my father was a Catholic who stopped attending Mass when the Church stopped speaking Latin. Since I had been intellectually precocious from an early age, they never pushed a particular faith on me, and beginning in high school, I began a life-long fascination with religion.

In my teenage years, I explored, in no particular order, Taoism, Buddhism, numerology,  atheism, Baha’iism,  and Zoroastrianism (okay, the last one for only a few minutes, but I did look it up). I particularly admired Hinduism, with its multiplicity of gods. I always thought it would be great, if you felt REALLY happy, to have more than one god you could thank. Or, if something really annoying, but not really important, happened, it would be nice to have a really specific god to curse–“Why do you smite me, God of Staplers?”–instead of generic venting to the Creator of everything.

Then when I got to college, I fell in with a group of Epicopalians. There’s a rough crowd. I went to Mass and I liked  it. Great tunes. Also liked the incense thing. I’m a sucker for smells and bells. I did notice there were no people of color. Thought that was kinda weird. But, I kept going, mostly because I had joined the choir, so it was like having a steady gig.

At some point I discovered the Unitarian Universalist Church. LOVED these guys on paper. No pesky creeds or doctrines, and an underlying belief that there is truth in all faiths. Although, to be honest, it sorta felt like I was attending a Sunday humanities lecture–not much emphasis on anything that felt transcendant. See, I still believed in God, even if I didn’t believe God could be found in a particular building, or box. I went regularly, though…after all, I was in the choir.

So, for several years, I just said I was an ‘unorthodox’ christian–powerful myth…symbolism that still resonates…great music. But at a certain point I felt I was so ‘unorthodox’ in my ‘christianity’ that I wasn’t doing myself, or Christendom, any favors by wearing that label. I agree with one of my comedy heroes, the lateBill Hicks, who said “I feel about Jesus the same way I do about Elvis. Love the man, love his work…but I can live without his crazy fans.”

So what was I? I went to the library to find out. I had always been inexplicably drawn to Judaism–it seemed to be the western religion that required the least amount of mental gymnastics, and…I had dated some Jewish girls. For some strange reason, almost all of my friends were Jewish (though almost none of them practiced).

So I’m reading this list of theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, and it was like, “yeah–that’s me”…”uh huh, that’s how I view the world”…”yeah–that’s what I believe.” And at that moment, I had an epiphany (how I wish there were a word for that that isn’t so associated with Christianity). I realized that I had always believed as a Jew–I just had never applied for a membership card.

So, always being the type to jump right in,  it was time to convert. I called a few synagogues, and found out that the Conservative one was starting a class, and I signed up. See, here’s big difference here between your Jews and your Christians. If I want to say I’m Christian, what I have to do is…just believe it. Not so with Judaism. This wasn’t even an Orthodox conversion, and  I had to take SIXTEEN WEEKS of classes.’People of the Book’ is right–and people of the syllabus, the handouts, the synopsis…oh, and on top of that let’s try to learn an entirely new language written in entirely different characters–written backwards in entirely different characters.

When I finished the class there were a couple of rituals to go through before things would be, for lack of a better word, kosher. First, I would need to affirm my bond with the people of Israel in front of witnesses, and then take a bath. Not your rub-a-dub kind–this would be a get naked and get into a pool of water in front of other people while you say a memorized Hebrew prayer kind of bath. You really do feel bonded with a spiritual leader when you’re bobbing around in a bathtub looking up at a man in full rabinnical garb.

Now in the Conservative movement, a male convert needs to be circumcized. Having been born in the U.S. in the sixties, my thought was ‘been there, done that.’ Much to my surprise, there is a ritual for guys who’ve already been ‘clipped.’ ‘Hatafat dam brit.’ Sounds mystical. Sounds like a beautiful ceremony to link me with centuries of Jewish men before me. Except it’s not really a ‘ceremony.’

What it is, is me with my pants at my ankles allowing someone (who, in theory, has had SOME training at this) to take a needle and draw a drop of blood from the end of my most special and typically not punctured body part. Now me, I’m not even comfortable with a zipper being too close to my penis. This is a part of conversion they don’t mention in the handouts.

The point is, when I pulled my pants up, I was officially Jewish (I’m almost sure that sentence sounds better in Hebrew).  The problem is, as it turned out, none of my Jewish friends were very…Jewish. I would call and share with them some fascinating experience I’d had on my faith journey and they would roll their collective eyes, as if to say ‘ Man, why would you go through all of that?” I would call to wish them a good Tu B’Shvat and it was like asking someone who hated basketball who they thought would win the Final Four.

I’ve been to Shabbat services at many synagogues since converting, and though I love the prayers and the readings (and the music–although something in a major key might be a selling point), I never like I fit in. I know it takes time, but I wonder sometimes whether I’ll always feel like this. The problem, seems to me, is that while one can convert to a religion, I’m not entirely sure how to convert to a culture. I didn’t spend my formative years trying to get out of Hebrew School–I didn’t dread having to do my Torah reading at my bar mitzvah–I didn’t spend time making latkes standing next to my Bubbe. I didn’t have a Bubbe.

Looking back, though I might wish I could ‘invent’ a Jewish past for myself, I’m happy where I am. I consider myself a questioning Jew, wrestling with faith. Like Isaac. Isaac is actually my Hebrew name, and one of the meanings associated with it is laughter, and if you can’t laugh, all of this ‘search for meaning’ stuff is pretty pointless anyway.

Actually, I think I’d like to coin a new word for my belief system. You can call me–a Smorgasbordian. I’m just sampling what’s on the religious buffet table until I’m spiritually full. Maybe in a while, I’ll go back for another helping.

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how does this work again?

I am extraordinarily lucky to  have found ‘the girlfriend.’  I had pretty much given up on the partner thing, since prior to connecting with She Who Tolerates Me, I hadn’t had sex in five years. While I’d like to attribute this to my incredibly high standards, there may in fact be other reasons for this drought.

When I was a younger man, I filled these dry spells with soul-searching, personal growth work, and porn. I never went to strip clubs, because I never understood the point—let’s, see, I’m lonely, and would really like to be with a woman, so I think I’ll go to a place that charges me a lot of money to LOOK AT what I want, which will get me excited, but I won’t be able to do anything about it. Sorta like being really hungry and going to a restaurant where the waiters SHOW you plates of food that you can’t eat.

Unfortunately, porn doesn’t do much for me, because the internet has made it too complicated. Used to be, you’d grab a magazine, and see pictures of people having sex. But while looking at those pictures, you didn’t have to deal with other pictures ‘popping up’ to get you to look at new pictures. I’m just saying, when the mood is just right, call me old-fashioned, but I like to focus on the couple I’m watching pretend to have sex.

There are also too many options with internet porn. I realize the spectrum of human sexuality is diverse, but are you kidding me? Two men, three woman, and an some kind of…sling? See I think what makes porn work is when the viewer can, at least on some level, imagine himself to be in the scene. Me, I’ve never mentally put myself in a sling.

The problem is that men get bored so easily with our simple man-minds, we have to keep making up new, more ‘out there’ types of porn. First it’s threesomes, then orgies, and all of a sudden we’ve got somebody with a camcorder uploading videos of alpacas masturbating.

You’d think, being bisexual, life would be a veritable Satyricon for me—a sexual smorgasbord. But no, it just means I can go into ANY bar and go home alone. By the way, I hate the term ‘bisexual.’ It sounds too clinical. I prefer my Native American name–”Dance With Anyone.” Or you could call me “donnyandmarie,” because I’m a little bit country AND a little bit rock and roll.

Before the girlfriend, the last time I had been in an actual relationship, Heather Locklear was starring in a series. Turns out, my sex life actually paralleled Heather Locklear’s career. I got laid a lot from 1981-1989 (’Melrose Place’ and ‘T.J. Hooker’), not so much from 1999-2002 (’Spin City’), and once in 2004 (’LAX’).  So until the lovely Miss Locklear gets another gig, I’m gonna have to find some way to get back in circulation.

I have thought about placing a personal ad, but I’m not sure I’m very ‘marketable.’

Forty-eight year old struggling writer and standup comic with limp seeks partner to share couch at friend’s apartment. Does not drive. Hobbies include playing the clarinet and blogging.

I’ve read that you can make romantic connections in places other than bars. But where? I’m Jewish, so I could cruise synagogues, but it always felt a little weird flirting with someone at a house of worship–I mean, God’s right there , for God’s sake. And I’ve heard that grocery stores are possibilities, but I’m not sure how you start that conversation (”I see you eat food, too. Maybe we should hook up.”)

It had been so long since I had sex, I wasn’t even sure if it worked the same way. Like they had developed some sort of…Sex 2.0 that I didn’t know about. I’m happy to report that it’s exactly the same as I remembered it, although I have  had to retire a few of my moves.

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