Category Archives: Human relations

The dumbest criticism of writing I ever hear

Book reviews are great places to see people say dumb things. Some of those dumb things are also common in message board posts, comment sections, and ordinary face-to-face speech. I have a passionate loathing for “dumb things everyone repeats as if they were automatically true,” but this one is the dumbest of the dumb:

“Profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The ability to rub together four brain cells would dispel this bromide at its birth, but since that ability seems so lacking, let’s perforate it once and for all with a volley of logic bullets.

In the first place, while I have been accused of many faults–some, with cause–a small vocabulary has never been among them. I don’t normally brag about it because it’s nothing for which I may take credit; it is the residue of fifty-one years of avid reading, 99% of which I enjoyed with gusto. I also have active vocabularies in foreign languages ranging from five to five thousand words depending on the tongue, with inactive vocabularies rather larger. There are few times to show off in an effort to humiliate someone, and that would be one.

I swear. I curse. I use bad words. I use them in speech and writing. Do I have a limited vocabulary? Pretty certain I do not.

People swear for many reasons. Some do it to release frustration. It’s better to swear than to break something, hurt someone, or bottle it all up inside. It can be used to intimidate, and intimidation is not always a bad thing. Some people will not do the right thing except when legitimately frightened, and a bad word or two says “I do not care what you think of me.” Some do it for comic purposes. Some swear just because it happens to feel good right about then. Some would not get through freeway and arterial traffic with sanity and language purity both intact. Some do it for effect in writing. I am sure you could think of other cases.

None of those reasons speak to a limited vocabulary. Claiming that swearing does so indicate only announces one’s own lack of reasoning capacity. Nice going. Look, if it offends you to hear or read profanity, just admit that it offends you. It’s okay to be offended. I’m offended by the foolishness of the claim about limited vocabulary, and I’m not going to apologize, so if you want to say that profanity offends you, fine. Be offended when you feel it necessary.

In our single-bit binary logic republic, perhaps a fair number of people will look at that and say: “Ah, so you advocate unlimited profanity without restraint. Classy.” Now that’s going from the frying pan of dumbth into the fire of stoopid. I advocate nothing of the kind.

In speech, as anyone not jumping into or out of frying pans of dumbth will grasp, times and places occur where profanity is appropriate or inappropriate. On the phone doing business? Mostly inappropriate, unless the situation is special. If my listing agent calls me to tell me that the buyer has bilged out of the deal for a stupid reason, and I have a long, collegial relationship with that agent, I may be entitled to a cussing-of-the-situation. If I’m calling the sheriff’s deputies to request their assistance, and there’s no reason for me to be worked up, gratuitous profanity would be a lousy idea. Let’s say I’m making a sales call on the Sisters of Perpetual Outrage convent; I probably shouldn’t drop bad words on Mother Superior, nor even on Daughter Inferior.

In writing, the rule would be: depends on the situation, but on balance one should consider profanity a chip one may play when and where it will have best effect. Like em dashes, ellipses, italics, caps, adverbs, passive voice, and all the other quirks that bad writers seem to mistake for ‘style,’ profanity loses its effect in high concentrations. Like all those chips, profanity has its place in the language. Its place is not in formal historical writing, for example, nor in a legal brief, nor in a cover letter. In a travel narrative? It may have its place. In fictional narrative? Same. In dialogue? If credible. How could one write credible stories involving bikers or ironworkers without profanity? “You better walk that stuff back, you child of a prostitute, or I’ll kick your backside!”

Telling people when to curse aloud is beyond the scope of what I do, but I can speak to the place of profanity in writing. The best approach I can suggest is: consider appropriateness and effect. Have you been burning lots of chips? If so, you should not tack on another bad habit. If not, then consider whether the likely impact is worth burning one of your precious deviations from good orthography. Would this naughty word make a real difference, enhance your narrative? If it would, let fly. But don’t do it just to indulge yet another lazy novice writing habit. Don’t waste the chip.

Admit it: you were waiting to see whether I would swear, weren’t you? Why would I? The goal of this article is to educate and persuade (with the secondary goal of shaming, in a few cases). Profanity would not do that. It would be as trite, predictable, and amateurish as the typical Facebook meme.

Not that I am incapable of triteness, predictability, or amateurism, of course. I’ve even been known to combine the three. I would like to think I rarely use them without reason. And I don’t need profanity to curse out the mentality that imagines profanity a sign of limited vocabulary. It would be fun for me, but less persuasive.

That is the point.

 

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There is a thing you can do for immigrants

Now and then, Americans go through a spasm of nativism. It happened when the Irish immigration waves began in the 1840s, it happened again in the World War I era, and it is happening now. The gist of nativism is that immigration is bad, we should reduce it, that ‘those people’ are not like ‘us’ because they look/sound/worship/eat ‘differently.’ And of course, that they will be the death and destruction of us.

Protip: the problem is not when people are waiting in long lines, following years-long processes, and sneaking across borders to get into your country. That is a sign of health. The problem is when they cease coming, and when your own people begin leaving.

We may differ on the definition of ‘immigrant.’ Fine; use your own definition. Myself, I have reached the point where I no longer care whether a person followed the process; I care only that, if I know about a person only his or her immigration/legality status, and his or her level of xenophobia and hatred, I know I’d rather have the xenophobic hatred go somewhere else, and I’d rather the non-native took that spot. Put another way, I like even the illegal aliens better than I like the native-born people who have made it a life’s mission to hate them. I would rather live next to the illegal aliens than those who have made xenophobia a philosophy. I feel that even the illegal aliens are doing more good for my country than people who would turn it to a police state to get rid of them. And thanks both to the stupid, pernicious redefinition of the word ‘immigrant’ to include people who did not actually follow an immigration process, which was a wrapped gift to nativist xenophobia, here’s the reality: everyone who wasn’t born here is feeling scared, hated, rejected, unwanted, disrespected, unvalued, and seriously rethinking the decision to live here. Even those who have become citizens.

I’m not taking this shit.

That is not my country. If it’s war to the knife for the American soul, then it’s time to draw the rhetorical steel. Xenophobia has already drawn and slashed away. It isn’t owed a warning.

If your vision of America is a diverse nation that embraces many accents, races, faiths, cultures, and ideas, then you probably value immigration in some form. If you do, then you could tell them. I have begun to do so. My wife has followed suit.

The method is simple. English is a very difficult language to speak without an accent; take that from someone who has learned a number of foreign languages. Most persons who speak with foreign accents were not born here. If it’s important to you, you can ask the person where he or she is from, or what is his or her native language. The only issue is that you wouldn’t want to do this with anyone born here, so however you ascertain that is up to your good sense. And it should be a person whose positive impact you would like to recognize–hard work, kindness, goodwill, whatever. I’m not here to tell you what moves you.

When you do, take a quiet moment, and say something kind and welcoming. “Thank you for coming to this country. I’m glad you’re here. You’ve made it better.” Whatever expresses your feelings; I’m not here to tell you what those should be, what words to use. Just let that person know that America isn’t entirely the wall of xenophobic hatred it has begun to resemble.

Chances are it’s the first time he or she has heard that. You would not believe the results.

  • My dentist wept openly.
  • My doctor smiled a most unreserved Anglo-Scottish smile.
  • The owner of our favorite Middle Eastern restaurant looked very much as if he would cry.
  • A jewelry salesperson lit up with joy.

In every case, it has made a difference for someone who was feeling confusion, fear, rejection, mixed emotions. In every case, I have been glad I did.

I’m going to keep it up. I’ve had it with this bigoted crap. If I’m going to hate anyone, it’s going to be bigots, not people who came to my country and did something to make it better. This bigotry crap may, deep down, represent what America truly is overall, but I’ve never wanted to belong to very many groups, and it doesn’t represent me. It is not necessary to be tolerant of intolerance; that’s fourth-grade logic meant to clear a space for hate. Tolerance of intolerance eventually destroys all tolerance, which is why the intolerant demand their own tolerance–it’s just a slash in that war to the knife, at a spot they imagine to be vulnerable.

I will not be silent, and thus let membership be assumed of me.

If you, like me, look around at the accentless grandchildren of the Vietnamese boat people and smile at their impact; if you look at the accentless children of the Bosnian refugees and smile at their impact; if you look at the survivors of African violence and smile at their impact…then there are at least some immigrants you like. Good; we can work with it. Feel free to say something to those who came from elsewhere, for your own reasons, in your own words, by your own choice, as the situation moves you.

Every time you do, you slash back against nativist hate.

My Archie Bunker experience

Everyone over forty knows exactly what I mean by that. Many under forty may not.

In 1971, the nation was divided and distressed. The Middle East would probably boil over again. We were losing in Vietnam, trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really losing if we simply quit and abandoned the RVN government to its fate. Back in those days, there was a left wing, including on the world stage where the Soviet Union worked hard to export its authoritarian-left perspective. It seemed to make inroads everywhere. For our part, we talked big about exporting democracy, but the truth was that we’d throw money and support at any dictator who supported us over the Soviets. We lived in daily fear of global thermonuclear war.

At home, the civil rights movement had won its war but would find that winning the peace was much like the difference between de jure and de facto. The women’s movement was still called ‘Women’s Liberation,’ and it was nowhere near winning its war. Men who had fought in World War II did not understand why their sons not only refused to fight in Vietnam, but did anything possible to avoid it. Cowboys and hippies exchanged insults, and at times punches. In the previous year, Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The year before that, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by a platoon of the Americal Division at My Lai had gone far to shake our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

The Pirates won the World Series in 1971, and I turned eight. That year, the sitcom All in the Family first aired. The show depicted a crabby, selfish, bigoted, working-class, staunchly right-wing World War II veteran, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Jean Stapleton played his wife Edith with great comic genius, keeping a straight face when it was hard imagining anyone could; she was far more tolerant than her husband, but just as old-fashioned. With the Bunkers lived their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a somewhat dimwitted partner to her husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Mike, whom Archie typically addressed as ‘Meathead,’ was attending college while he and Gloria lived with the Bunkers to save money. As Archie was a parody of the day’s right wing and social conservatism, Mike parodied the left wing and social liberalism of the day. He was sexist, condescending, self-righteous, and inconsiderate.

I don’t remember Archie ever saying “nigger”–by 1971, that was the first (and only) racial slur that had become unacceptable on a broad social basis–but I’ve been watching old episodes, and I did hear him say “chink,” “spic,” “Hebe,” “gook,” “bohunk,” “fag,” and “Dago.” In nearly every episode, he called Mike a “Polack.” It must be quite jolting to the younger ear; it jolts mine, and I remember when such talk was just starting to go underground, throughout the seventies. (Some of us thought it had been eradicated, but that was wishful thinking. One can prevent a person from articulating bigotry, but that will not change that person’s beliefs.)

The show was so popular because it held up a mirror to the culture of the day, with nuanced characters and some good comedy. It may have been the catalyst for some self-awareness growth. We all knew at least one Archie Bunker. All in the Family ran for nine years, with a couple of middling spinoffs.

The reasons all this matter, at least to me, are:

  1. If I don’t help to tell the history of my times, people will make up fictitious purpose-driven versions.
  2. It touches my life because I came moderately close to being the son-in-law of an Archie Bunker.

Back in my twenties, I got involved with a young lady–we’ll call her Katie–who was in a mode of post-collegiate-but-still-living-at-home rebellion against her parents. The father, who worked construction, might well have been somewhat grateful that this time his daughter had brought home someone of similar ethnic background to herself. The previous one had not been, and you can imagine what Archie (I think I’ll just call him that) had on his mind about that. He was an ugly flat-faced SOB who looked like he could eat wallpaper off a wall, and not without virtues; unfortunately, among his virtues was not multicultural tolerance and acceptance. He was also a troll, and knew that his racism offended me, so he made the most of that: he’d turn the channel to a boxing match, for example, and talk about how much fun it was to watch a couple of “niggers” beat each other up.

Unlike TV’s Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith had a heart of gold, Katie’s mother was as mean and bigoted as her husband, and considerably more vindictive. On some level, her husband was human; the mother was not. In fact, Katie did not have one single relative I could bear: a brother and cousin, clones of the father; an absurdly dumb sister; a stereotypical drunk, deaf uncle. The price of dating Katie, and of later being engaged to her, was to be required to endure these people most weekends.

Can you believe I tried for five years to make this relationship work? Good lord. I had my flaws, and I contributed my share of mistakes, but in the end it was time to bow to reality. Significantly poorer, I moved on in relationships. We still have a few friends in common, but Katie moved on and married (this time, to a Hispanic man; Archie must have just loved that). We haven’t spoken in nearly a quarter century; both her parents are gone, but I’ll be glad just never to have any reminder too direct of that experience.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you’re young, and you happen to be watching old TVLand reruns of All in the Family, and you simply cannot believe they could get away with talking like that on TV (except maybe on premium movie channels), much less that such views were commonplace, believe it. And they are by no means all gone even today.

I hope your generation sees the final die-off of those attitudes, because with their current remalnaissance*, mine will not live to see it.

==

*For those of you who are not French speakers, this is my neologism for ‘re-misbegotten.’ ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and ‘mal’ means ‘bad.’ It is not meant to be correct French, but to modify the English term to indicate that the original birth was no good either.

Whether or not you choose how to age, you do choose

Today I am feeling philosophical, and I want to share one of my fundamental beliefs about aging.

If we are spared, in our forties, we choose. What we choose in our minds does not constitute our choice. Rather, our choice is manifest in our actions. Talk is cheap and wishes are cheaper, but deeds matter. Deeds are who you are, whatever you may wish you were.

In most cases, by our forties, we have figured out how we will get through our years. We may have decided that we will do so in a given job field, or with no job at all, in partnership, as parents, entirely singly, as hermits, or in whatever way, but we are mostly established by that time. At that point we are likely to have something of a surplus of resources, even if very modest, or at least probably do not have so many urgent wants or needs.

Sometime in our forties, we decide whether or not to share. It is a decision whether we will seek to give of our knowledge, our possessions, our time, and whatever else we value. Not all of it, but enough to be remembered. We either decide to share, and live the remainder of our lives sharing, or we decide to hoard.

It is a decision based partly in the choice of courage and confidence over fear and uncertainty. The brave, confident person is not afraid to share. The fearful coward hoards.

The neighbor gal overshoots the cul-de-sac and her bike rolls up into our yard. We either smile and wave to her, or we scream at the poor kid to get off our lawn.

The Girl Scout is selling cookies we don’t want or need. We either stop, discuss, engage, and purchase, or we hasten past without eye contact.

The elderly fellow is clearly lonely and not terribly interesting to talk to, and is a bit tactless. We either be patient and listen for a while, or we treat him like a leper.

It’s Halloween. We either turn on the lights and hand out candy, or we shut them off and refuse to answer the door.

The hotel desk clerk looks harried. We either answer her “have a nice evening, sir” with something bantery like “Thank you; I wish you a peaceful evening free of entitled jerks,” or we just nod and take our keys.

The other guy, who has out-of-state plates, is in the stupidly designed lane the rest of us locals knew to get out of. Now he’s truly stuck. We either let him in, or we close the gap and let someone else perhaps do it, screw you, I got mine, not my problem.

A family friend is down on his luck, and very proud. We either find a way to slip him some money (which we will never again mention), or we figure that’s his problem.

Whether or not we choose to share mainly determines the nature of our memorial service.

If we choose to share, we burden our survivors with a mighty but rather heartwarming burdening; our memorial service becomes a vast pain in the butt. It becomes necessary to rent or obtain an auditorium in which to hold our memorial service. In some cases (and this actually happened to one family friend of ours) it will require two auditorium sessions.

If we turtle up and cannot bear the thought of anyone getting anything he or she did not earn, and yell at the kids to stay off our lawn, the memorial service is easier. It can be held in the men’s can at the SunMart on 27th and US 395 in south Kennewick, WA, and probably without taking over any stalls or disturbing anyone’s deuce deposition. Might even be able to handle it in a single stall.

If so, poetic justice.

But whether or not we choose with our minds, our actions represent our choice.

Share or hoard. Either you have chosen, or you will choose.

And as people choose, so do people’s organizations in their fullness of maturity: companies, churches, social groups.

Even nations.

Choose.

Dear Girl Scouting parents: please hush

Not entirely, of course. But kindly let the girls answer the questions on their own without opening your traps unless the girl asks for your help.

I admire Girl Scouting, in spite of the fact that my wife got kicked out of them for cursing and refusing to sell cookies. (As Weird Al teaches us, some girls like to buy new shoes, and others like driving trucks and wearing tattoos. I married the second variety.) Girl Scouting is inclusive, teaching a number of worthy values. It helps to raise generations of strong women. As an aging man, this is worth whatever it takes to achieve because–assuming I don’t seize up like an engine out of oil–I’m going to be elderly in a world that these girls will one day be managing.

Selling Girl Scout cookies can be an important link in the process of developing those values–but much more so if you will please shut up.

Here’s the deal.

  • I know the cookies are very expensive.
  • I know this is a rather more educational and practical fundraiser than simply asking for money.
  • I do not actually want any cookies.
  • I absolutely should not eat any cookies.
  • If I were acting in my own best interests, I would blow past the cookie table and send a cash donation to my local GSA organization. I would spend less money, they would pocket more profit, and I would have less pork to walk off. Stopping for cookies is not what I want to do.

I do it because this is my village, and these girls are its future, and among the most important things a girl can learn is poise in dealing with the public–especially with older men, who could in theory seem like hairy intimidating monsters. Older men who have thought things through will understand that they have a dog in this fight, and may/should do the following in some form:

  1. Stop and say hello to the girls. Speak with respect: “Good afternoon, young ladies.” Model the way men should treat them, so that they learn what that is. Later on in life, when asshole men treat them otherwise, they will recognize the difference.
  2. Whichever girl responds, ask some thoughtful questions. What does your troop do in the community? Which of these contain peanuts? Are there any new kinds this year? What have you learned from Girl Scouting? What do you like best about it? What did you do to earn that badge?
  3. Listen to the answers. You asked, now shut up and let her tell you. Show interest. Ask a follow-up if you wish. Be friendly, of course, not grouchy, but process the answers you receive. Be engaged.
  4. Don’t ask the parents anything. The parents aren’t the vendors; the girl is. Give her the dignity and experience of directing every question to her.
  5. Pick out at least one box of cookies, to show them that poise in dealing with the public earns trust, respect, and business. Pay the girl and wait for the change. Thank her and accept her thanks.
  6. When you get home, give the cookies to someone who can eat them.

I hope you see where I am going with this. Now that I’ve entreated myself, let me do the same for the supervising parents.

First: you are doing an outstanding thing. Thank you. Without your unselfish dedication, none of this would be possible.

Second: with all due respect and with great gratitude for your volunteerism, please shush. Be silent. For the love of whatever deities you serve, let the girl answer unaided until she asks you for help.

When the customer asks questions, s/he is trying to help the girls. The customer is doing his or her part, in a small way, to teach. Except in rare cases, the customer does not actually care that much about the answers. Therefore, kindly let the girl answer the question. If she falters, continue the fine art of “shut the hell up.” Do not butt in. Shut your mouth. Let her think. She has a perfectly good brain. How she uses it will determine her destiny.

What if she’s stuck? Teach–in advance. Teach her to ask you for help if she needs it. If she does not know the answer, she needs to know that it is all right to ask for help and knowledge. Explain to her that you’re going to let her handle this, but that if she doesn’t know the answer, she should ask you and then relay the answer.

You must not answer for her. Do not make eye contact with the customer. This is her customer. Do not parentsplain. Let her learn to handle the customer and seek answers she does not yet have. In time, if you will just shut the hell up until asked by her, she will be confident handling all sorts of odd questions.

Do you seriously think she’s too stupid to subtract five from twenty? Don’t laugh. I had a parent butt in and interrupt a girl today while she was making change (for the day’s second box of unwanted cookies bought by me). Good lord! If Common Core means that a nine-year-old girl can’t subtract five from twenty in her head any more, then we need to send in our resignation from the ranks of developed countries. Let her make change!

If she does something wrong, unless it would somehow deprive the customer of fair value (which is when you do butt in), wait until no one is listening, then teach. Parent. Counsel. Educate. Guide. Help me out. “You forgot to thank that customer. That’s very important.” “Remember that it’s okay to stop and think for a moment.” “Did you treat that customer like the most important person you were dealing with right then?” Gentle, supportive, educational. Help her be better and let her see that being better produces better outcomes.

I’m serious. Help me out. I’m perfectly happy buying overpriced cookies I don’t want, but for the love of Pete, help me help the girls.

Let them handle the deal.

If you are one of society’s blurters or helicopter parents, and are just busting at the seams to open your trap, wait until she has handled the transaction and I’m leaving. At that point, I will probably reward her poise by looking to you and thanking you for volunteering to teach fine young ladies like these. Now you can talk. Now it’s about you. It was about her, now it’s about you. Bask a little. Let the girl see that volunteerism earns respect and that she and you are part of an organization much valued by the public.

If you did as I asked, by shutting up long enough to allow me to do my little part, you’ve earned that.

P.S. One week later, and it still goes on. Coming out of grocery store today. Began to ask Brownie the relevant questions. Girl attempts to respond. Adult present kept butting in. I am tired of this and I’m done tolerating it. Quietly, behind my hand: “Young man, I am addressing the vendor. I’m trying to help this girl learn. Please kindly let her answer.” To his credit, he tried, though he butted in again, and when she showed herself perfectly capable of giving a $5 in change for a $10, felt it necessary to coach her on making change. Gods save us all from well-meaning helicopter parentsplainers who won’t shut the hell up and stay out of it until they are needed. I feel like I’m teaching fricking first grade, and it’s not the girls I’m having to instruct.

One more, later that day; at last, some parents with their act together. I asked their girl about her bridge emblem, and about what they do in the community. She and her sister were obviously poised veterans, and she told how they are saving money for a veterans’ breakfast. Perfect trigger point. “Well, ma’am, that sounds like the kind of thing I want to support.” Not a word from mom and dad. On the way out, I praised their daughters’ confidence. Dad: “They’ve been doing this for six years, so they know all the answers. They can take care of it.”

Yes, young man, they can.

And as you age and falter in your days, they will remember you from their youth as a man who–more than any other man–taught them how men should treat them, and who let them find their own strength, and they will revere you to your final hour and beyond. When lesser men treat them less well, they will know the difference and demand better.

I didn’t tell him all that, of course, but I thought it as I pushed the grocery cart across the parking lot.

Harold’s sneakers

I used to know a guy named Harold, whom I met through my good friend James. Well, Harold had issues, though he wasn’t a bad guy at heart. In short, Harold was a perpetual, seemingly compulsive liar. He would brass through any lie even when presented with plain evidence to refute it. Harold was convinced that he had been a very important member of a secret special ops unit. If the subject of a language came up, he claimed to speak it fluently. Harold lied about so much that one believed nothing he said, and one was surprised whenever a truth leaked through all the fiction and horseshit.

Even so, I never expected he’d burn a friendship to get a couple grand, but live and learn. He still owes me that money, plus interest, ten years in.

I did have fun one time, when Harold showed up at my door unannounced, wearing his green beret (which was draped on the wrong side). I did not miss a beat. “Little girl, I’d like two boxes of thin mints, and two boxes of the peanut butter dream cookies, please.”

Before entering, Harold raised a middle finger, signifying his disapproval of my greeting.

Another time, Harold got snowed in at my place during a freak Pacific Northwest westside snowstorm. He was stuck there for three days, during which he managed to get my sliding glass door stuck open due to ice, thanks in turn to his frequent need to go out and smoke. Since he had trudged some distance through the slush to reach my place, he had arrived with very wet sneakers, which he removed. My carpet would never be the same again. Harold’s sneakers had a legendary stench, and he was now walking around my place in his wet socks. He claimed to have contracted some sort of jungle fungus in the tropics. I suspected he probably just hadn’t changed his socks often enough.

When I awoke the next morning, and went down the hall, my nostrils cringed before the assault of Harold’s fermenting sneakers (probably almost ready for la remuage et le dégorgement). This will not stand, I told myself. My solution was silent, swift, and sure. I dug three quarters out of my laundry coin jar and scooped up a scoop of laundry detergent. I looked at Harold, pointed at his shoes, then to my door. I sat the coins and detergent on the table and went back to my room, hoping that my body language had conveyed the full urgency.

The funniest one, though, was when James needed his house painted, as he feared he might need to put it on the market due to illness. Harold and I teamed up to paint the house. Now, James had a small mutt named Willie. Willie, an inoffensive creature to anyone partial to dogs, annoyed me and I paid him no attention of any kind. Willie did not care. Willie liked me anyway, and for that reason, James liked me. This was a pretty hot day, Harold had rented a paint sprayer, at the use of which he was inept, and we weren’t having a very easy or clean time.

James, being the good guy that he was, ordered pizza for all of us. (He was too frail at that point to help paint the place. He would eventually need a transplant, which would buy him some more years before we lost him.) Harold and I were glad to go inside for lunch. I was so tired, sweaty, and hungry that I didn’t even care that Harold had removed his sneakers.

We all shared a jovial pizza lunch, eating our way to the crusts. Willie expected that this would be his snack time, and began to get a little eager. James chastised him in that piercing nasal voice I miss to this day: “Willie! Good dogs get, and bad dogs don’t!” Willie, no fool, resumed his patient wait. Soon James pitched a succulent pizza crust in his direction.

I swear to you that this is true: it landed directly in one of Harold’s shoes. I would not fictionalize something like this without telling you so.

James, of course, had not meant to do that. Willie’s reflexes caused him to dart for the thrown food, and within six inches of Harold’s footwear, the dog halted as if he’d hit a force-field. Willie stopped, examined the situation, sniffed, and backed off. He gave James the mournful canine look that says ‘You are such a fucker,’ and trudged away in sorrow.

When it registered what we had just seen, that was probably the best laugh we all ever had together.

It’s how I like to remember James, a man whose eulogy I would one day have to deliver.

Remembering my friend Brian Rush, 9/12/56 – 12/2/15

If being in your fifties is all about obituaries and funerals and memorials, I’m starting to grasp how people’s attitudes can become in their sixties. This is not fun. You watch it accelerate, and it can’t help but get you thinking.

I hadn’t seen Brian in twenty years when I got the news that he had died of an aneurysm, though we had sporadic touch here and there since Facepalm came along. Way back when, I met him through my then-girlfriend’s religious circles, and we established common interests in history and gaming. He was very well read, creative, intelligent, funny, and knew it–but since he was also self-honest, he would have been the first one to fess to a large ego.

Our first interactions involved a couple of computer games at which I asked him for pointers. One was Colonization, a game of the European occupation of the Americas. As you played the role of a colonial governor, building your independence from a mother country until the day you unfurled Old Glory in rebellion, now and then the monarch would contact you with messages like this: “Governor van Abductus [or whatever your name was]. In honor of Our recent marriage to Our fifth wife, We in our Wisdom have decided to raise the tax rate by 4%. The tax rate is now 35%. If you wish, you may kiss Our royal pinky ring.” The pot-bellied image would extend a dainty hand. If you didn’t kiss the royal pinky ring and pay the tax, you couldn’t trade the commodity with the homeland any more. Brian and I hooted and laughed over the irritation this caricature brought to the game, and it became sort of a meme; when one of us was relating a requirement to do an unpleasant thing or suffer (go to the DMV, for example), it would be: “So when do you go in to kiss the royal pinky ring?” I remember him as a source of laughter and debate and wit, a more than worthy sparring partner in matters of difference and philosophy. If you hadn’t thought through your position, Brian would show you what you’d missed.

He was also a hell of a public speaker. I used to be part of a group that gathered to play multiplayer boardgames. One of them, a political and semi-military contest called Republic of Rome, was in Brian’s and my historical wheelhouse. It was also a game of such great nefarity, chicanery, and deceit that the rules author felt he had to enumerate in unambiguous detail certain restrictions. Such rules were taken on faith by custom in other games designed to appeal to less slimy people. Such as the part about electing a banker:

4:3 BANKER: Elect one player to serve as an unrecompensed “Banker” throughout the game. He doles out money from game supplies as it is earned, makes change upon request, and maintains the proper currency levels on the State Treasury Track while keeping the State, Game, and his Faction’s funds distinctly separate. [Underlines are mine.]

“Unrecompensed”; if not otherwise specified, RoR players would attempt to charge the other players some form of commission or fee for banking services, plus presumably a stipend just for being themselves. “As it is earned”; he may not do as RoR players otherwise would seek to do, and dole it out to purchase influence from those peddling it for personal advantage. “Maintains the proper currency levels…distinctly separate”; absent such explicit rules, RoR players would consider that being banker was a license to steal as much money as possible for themselves, as long as the rest of the players did not cop to it and combine forces against the banker.

Brian was very good at the game. We often found ourselves in conflict, mainly because each of us knew that the other was going to play historically (full sleazebag). He also offered a lot of entertainment, because part of the game was the speechmaking. We all ended up with nicknames; I forget Brian’s, but we had a guy named Aaron whom we called ‘Citizen Erroneous,’ and me they called ‘Citizen Taxus,’ partly for the Latin name of the badger, partly because I had gotten away with sticking the Roman state with numerous perpetual tax obligations while feathering my own nest, and the rest of them rightfully had it out for me at all times.

Brian would rise to address us. If his faction held the Censorship, you could anticipate something like this: “Conscript Fathers, there is but one true threat to our Republican traditions. One guilty of levitas during the state’s crises, of mismanaging the state’s funds, and very worst of all: of seeking to become a King! I herewith launch a Major Prosecution against Citizen Taxus, and call upon you, Citizen Erroneous, to prosecute!” I would then have to defend myself, not through reason, but by pointing out that Brian was doing this to me purely for personal gain. Since that much was obvious even to a Gaul, I would need more ammo than that. I would hint at the growing number of legions loyal to him, suggest that they ask him to disclose his faction treasury, and imply that he had fluffed the latter up by illegal or at least highly unethical means. This was almost certain to be correct, since we all did our best to steal anything that wasn’t a) nailed down, and b) very emphatically prohibited by the rules.

As I could see him launch into his expositions of my faction’s numerous moral and political shortcomings, I did my all to avoid ruining the moments with laughter. I could see by the twinkle in his eyes that he was also struggling most of the time. And when I did similar things to him, I know he found it very challenging to keep a straight face.

What fun we had.

Such are my memories of Brian Rush, philosopher, proud pagan man, historian, writer, storyteller, gamer, and friend. He was a father, and cared very much for his daughters’ welfare. Now they are grown women; when this was all happening, they were little girls whose parents had split up. I never knew the details of that, and did not ask, but I could see that his daughters were important to him.

I will always remember Brian, and the twinkle in his eye.

Deb’s and my hearts go out to all his surviving family, especially the daughters who meant so much to him.