"The only thing one can do is follow himself . . . dig in, discover what he is, and who he is, and reveal himself." – Henry Miller

Friends

Peace with inches…

I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.

There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.

These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.

Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.

But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.

And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.

Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:

(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.

Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”

And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.

In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.

I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.

So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.

I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?

But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!


The safety dance

For some reason, when I talk to friends from home about London they all ask me about the parties. Without fail, anytime they call me before noon on a weekend, they’ll say, “Sorry to call you so early, man… I know you were probably out last night.” This is partly because I’m an alcoholic, of course, but they seem to overstate my ambitions.

Chances are, more likely, that I went to bed at 11 after heading to the local pub by myself to sit in a corner and read the new Haruki Murakami book. But they don’t get it. They’re aware there are plenty of parties here, but they never seem to understand that they rarely involve me.

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable at parties and large gatherings. (I’d say I’m more of a one-on-one person, but I’m not really that either.) True, I’ve got better over the years, but something about them has always bothered me; I arrive, and everyone is already having fun, like they didn’t even know I was coming (had they known, maybe they might have toned it down a bit). It’s like coming into a room just after someone has told the best joke, the type of joke they’ll keep referring back to the rest of the evening. Everyone’s laughing their heads off, hee-hee, ha-ha, and they’re all in on the joke, enjoying it together. Except for me.

The more banging the shindig is, the less at ease I am. Especially when people are dancing. I’m not big on dancing. At least, not in public. At home, in private, I dance along to whatever music is on with total abandon. But ask me to dance in public and, yes, I will try, maybe even give it my all and everything, but in the end I really just move from side to side. Occasionally, I can fake it, especially when I’m out with people who can’t even do that – they either look like a chicken pox-infected person having an epileptic fit while being struck by lightning, or they look like a 10-year-old who really has to pee, standing straight up, hopping ever so slightly, eyes dodging around everywhere, hoping nobody notices. It’s highly amusing, to be entirely honest.

To these guys, because I was usually drunk and throwing myself around with little regard to propriety or safety, I could dance. But to the general public, the people who actually dance for fun rather than dancing because their alleged “friend” shamed them into it so he could take pictures and mock them, I’m a disaster. I jump around like a moron, move my hands wildly left to right and eventually morph dangerously into a shimmying, jiving “Walk Like an Egyptian” movin’ fool.

It’s horrific. I’ve had two ex-girlfriends actually refuse to go to any kind of dance club with me. I remember one of them used to drag me along for one purpose only: to hold the table and make sure nobody stole the bags and beer while she and her friends were all dancing. I usually tried to remember to bring a book.

I’m not sure why it is. I consider myself quite a sociable person. But when you’re at a huge party with people bumping into one another and no more than negative-6 inches between you and some 7-foot-tall fella with a lot of body hair who’s sweating out the average rainfall of the Amazon Basin all on his own, you tend to become a bit withdrawn.

Inevitably, I end up playing Pinball with the crowd – for some reason, I insanely insist on saying “Excuse me” and “Sorry” when I bump into someone at huge parties, which only happens every half-second – and ricocheting outdoors, where I sit in the corner and try to siphon off a cubic foot of space in case there’s a fire or something. Intermittently, I’ll start laughing out loud at nothing in particular, in case someone is planning on punching me and needs to be scared off by an appearance of insanity.

If someone I know comes by to say hello (or, more likely, to ask me a question about computers), I’ll make some kind of joke about being knackered from all the booty-shakin’ then wait the requisite 10 seconds – tops – until they notice some random person in the crowd, yell “Anna! Hi!” then scamper off. Then I go back to my random laughter.

And that is how I party.

Went to a party last Saturday night (Didn’t get laid / I got in a fight / Uh-oh, it ain’t no big thing. Sorry… I couldn’t resist that one!). Actually, it was a few weeks ago and it was actually more than a party. To me, it was a “rave,” you know, like those underground parties you only hear about through some secret network. (I was later told that it did not actually qualify as a rave. I’ll let you decide.)

Now, I should have known that I’m getting too old for this shit, but the whole “rave” thing, with all the “kids” “raving,” “having fun” and “enjoying” their time at a “rave” was a new experience to be had, so I was willing to give it a shot. I’d never been to such an event before, and well, I’d heard a lot about them, and, shit, they seemed totally crazy. A mate of a mate was going to be DJ’ing, and they were much cooler than me, so I figured, if just by osmosis, maybe I could have a good time.

We arrived, and I noticed straight off that this thing was going to be a struggle. Everyone was all decked out in what I decided was “dance” garb, or they weren’t wearing much at all (one girl, clearly under the influence of some kind of stimulant – probably coffee – danced topless with black stars painted on her nipples for what seemed like several non-stop hours; later on, she was lying down, staring at the ceiling, eyes wide wide wide open, and I was scared shitless because I briefly thought she might be dead and had visions of the coppers showing up and arresting us all). They were all grooving around in a trance, dancing with each other and themselves, oblivious to anything but the beat (that beat, that incessant beat). But… they were serving good rum at the bar.

I legged it to the garden outside, finagled my way into the corner and sat down. I got up once, waited half an hour for the bathroom, left the loo, realised I had to go again and stepped back in line. Another half hour. Back to the garden, save for a quick stop at the dance floor, where some guy (I swear) was digging his fingernail into his cheek. I stayed at the garden from then on before calling a cab and making my hasty escape. If you saw me, it might have looked like I was dancing for a moment, but I just tripped on a rock.

I’ve been thinking of having a party recently. Maybe I’ll invite all those friends from home, show them what a real London party’s all about. Of course, it’ll just be laughing to myself and tripping over rocks, like always, and it’ll be extra tough to do that “Anna! Hi!” trick, since, well, I’ll know everybody there. Probably won’t work.

Maybe the only person I’ll invite is me. And the neighbour’s cat. I think the cat can come.


The post-match report

Some friends of mine and I have a game we play any time we all go to a party together. We don’t really have a name for it – it definitely needs one – but we pattern it after the television coverage of a major sporting event.

A big football match is the most apt corollary. When the game is on television, the channel showing it inevitably carries hours of pre-match coverage, featuring countless commentators looking at the major storylines heading into the big game. Which player must have a big game for his team to win, which manager is most likely to have a go at the fourth official, which poor bastard is the most liable to miss a sitter at a crucial moment. Then, when the game is over and the plot has played itself out, the same commentators gather to dissect every aspect of the contest, who played well, who didn’t, so on, poring over every little detail, singling out amusing or critical points, the ones that will be remembered, the ones that will go down in history and/or infamy. These analysts have studied the game in and out, beforehand and afterwards, and they know every move, every player, every strategy, every technique, and why it mattered, why it was important.

In our party game, we’re the commentators. Beforehand, we chatter about who’s going to be there, what kind of parties the host usually has, what time is appropriate to show up, laying out the plotlines, who’s going to avoid whom, who’s going to try to hook up, who’s going to sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. But the real fun comes in the post-match report, where we connect the dots of all the people we know, reflect on what we’ve learned about them, gossip and chatter and mock people and venerate others and, namely, try to make some sense of it all. We’ll go on and on.

Man, Mike really was drunk tonight. Katy’s boyfriend is a bit of a moron, isn’t he? I hadn’t noticed, but Dan seems to have gained a little weight since he quit smoking. It’s good to see Joe and Rachel so happy. Gives you hope, doesn’t it? Greg’s such a socialite. You can just wind him and watch him go. Can you believe Karen was there? I haven’t seen her in years. She looks great. What’s the name of that one guy, the tall one with the stupid hair and big nose? Jeff, that’s right. I can’t believe I got stuck talking to Andy for so long. One of you guys should have saved me. What did they put in that cocktail, anyway?

The chatter is alternately catty and admiring and self-centred and idiotic and everything that’s great and tragic and pointless and hysterical. It is our common language, brilliant commentary that only we understand. And these people, my friends, all those who play the game and those who use the Average Formation Map to describe their moves… these are all people in my circle, in my tribe, the ever-widening and contracting coliseum of my life, and their lives, the ongoing story, the never-ending jam session. A bunch of clamouring cicadas, bumping into each other, making connections, drifting apart, supporting characters in everyone’s Oscar-winning role.

That’s what it is, actually; it’s an ongoing play we’re constantly rewriting, crumpling pages that didn’t work out right, starting anew, but always, always, writing on. And what keeps us going are our friends, those who know us, those whom we irritate and love us anyway, the ones, when the city goes dark and you’re adrift and can’t contact anyone, you naturally, seamlessly gravitate back toward. The ones who take you in and hand you a drink and ask you how your sister’s doing. The ones who tell the same jokes over and over. The ones who can’t keep a relationship going and can’t figure out why, even when it’s obvious to everyone else. The ones who are always there. They are your family. There’s no other word for it.

Look at that friend you emailed or texted just now. What connects you with that person? How’d you meet them? What keeps you two connected? Do you even think about it? Do you even need to? It’s as natural as breathing, the background static that we don’t notice but keeps the phones working, the lines open, the trains running on time. Without them, we are vapour, wisps, a record with no needle. They make what we’re doing matter. They are more than a crutch; they are our very spine.

Several years ago, I spent some time in Miami with two old, old friends who had just got engaged. My then girlfriend accompanied me, and I did what I could to describe her beforehand, what she liked, what mattered to her, why I liked her… what they should expect, essentially. We spent the weekend, and she left a day before I did, leaving the three of us with one last night.

That night, we bought four bottles of wine, turned on some music and had our post-match report. They know me as well as anyone does; they know where all the bodies are buried, better than I do, really. They compared and contrasted her with women in my past, placed her in a certain context, pointed out how I had changed over the years, why they liked her, why I looked happier than I’ve looked in a while, and then off we went. We told old stories, sure, but it was not merely wistful reminiscence. They’re as current as they’ve ever been. They know me the way I know them; from a genuine, kind place that just can’t wait to see what will happen next. It was our story, and we were telling it. We were getting it wrong in places, we were jumping to conclusions, we were exaggerating details for our own amusement… and we smiled and laughed and felt eternally at home. Which is where we were. Which is where we are.

It is a treasure to have all these people in my life, both old and new. I am so lucky. Allow me this moment to tell them: Thank you.


Transition

Tomorrow I turn 40.

There… I’ve said it!

For months, it’s been there, creeping up on me, peeking out from behind the corners of my consciousness, shimmering silver from beneath the receding black, etching a bit deeper into the smile lines. On the one hand, I’ve been dreading it, thinking, “Oh shit, here we go with this interminable passage of time thing. Twenty-two years since I left school? Seriously?” And on the other hand, I’m thinking, “Wahey! Hold on for the ride!”

Now, as I sit here in the final quiet hours, contemplating that today is the last day of my 30s before I tumble headlong into a new decade, the transition just feels arbitrary. Indeed, part of me rebels against the societal expectation that I should be feeling or doing something BIG. Counting the passing of days as meticulously as we do is so uniquely human. Yet, like New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, I do sometimes wonder if birthdays were constructed to encourage people to consume. But equally, I know that if I don’t acknowledge this in a way that feels meaningful to me, I’ll regret it. Arbitrary or not, tomorrow I turn 40 and I need to process that fact in a way that makes sense to me, even as a parade of memories travel like logs down the river of my mind.

And so I write. I write because that is the way my soul makes sense of life. I write as I’ve always written – throughout my childhood in my little red school copybook, with poem titles like “Rover” and “The Flaming Immortelle”; throughout my angst-ridden teenage years when I was desperately trying to define myself by the externals of good looks and good grades; throughout my 20s – the thrilling journalism years – when I did it for love and a living even as the panic and anxieties of life grabbed me by the neck, before the diamonds inside the anxiety finally started to reveal themselves; throughout my 30s as I settled down in a new country, started a new career and a new way of life, loved deeply and lost bitterly… each time being turned inside out by the transition.

In my heart I carry all those people I’ve been before. I’m all those versions of myself, four decades of transition.

And speaking of transitions, as I turn 40 I can also feel myself shedding parts of my personality that are no longer serving me. For example, I was recently chatting with a friend about how people – ourselves included – often put up walls around themselves. I later mulled this over well into the night, and by morning I felt a palpable shift. The part of me that tries so hard to connect with people that aren’t open to connecting – work colleagues, acquaintances, neighbours or supermarket cashiers – fell away. I realised with total certainty that it’s not me. If someone isn’t open to connecting when I approach them with a genuine smile and real interest, it’s not because I’ve said something offensive or done anything wrong, it’s just walls. And just like that, I stopped caring so much about what others thought of me.

It was like stepping a little further into my true self, a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger and calmer than I’ve ever felt, a little bit closer to my calling in life, whatever that may be. It was like I suddenly recognised the freedom I had all along to choose how I “do” life.

Tomorrow I turn 40.

There is a pang of grief as I let go of a familiar number; a twinge of trepidation as I wonder what lies ahead. But mostly, surprisingly, I feel joy, gratitude and excitement. I have much to be thankful for. I’ve survived the challenges of my twenties and thirties and now know how to stay true to myself and what I hold dear. And that’s something worth celebrating as I continue to experience, to feel, this glorious thing called LIFE.

So farewell dear Thirties. Now bring on the next adventure!


The eternity of Joe Alvarez

When I played football as a child, there was this guy on the team named Joe Alvarez. You could go to every practice, read all the names on the team-sheet and play countless matches together, and of all the kids there, Joe was the one you’d notice the least.

He was quiet, sure, but lots of kids were quiet. (I, alas, was not one of them.) Joe just happened to look like every youngster. He was normal height, normal build; his cap sat too far down over his eyes like every other guy that age. Absolutely nothing exceptional existed about Joe. He wasn’t cuter than anyone else, he wasn’t fatter, he wasn’t any more talented, he wasn’t any more anything. No one really hung out with Joe, but no one ever made fun of him either. Joe was the type of guy who would play in every game and never score a goal. Joe was just simply there.

Joe was a year older than me, so when he moved up to the next level, any thoughts I might have happened to have of him vanished. He had rarely entered my mind in the first place, and once he was out of my severely limited circle of awareness, he might as well have never existed in the first place.

Which is why it was strange when my mother took me aside after dinner one night, when I was 10.

“David… you remember Joe, the boy from your team?” Mum had an odd look on her face. She wasn’t sad or anything, or at least it didn’t seem like it, but her eyes were pinched, narrowed, serious. It was almost comical the way she looked. I hadn’t seen her look that way before; it must have made an effect, because I remember it all these years later.

I told Mum I kind of remembered him. “He played on the wing, right?” But Mum wasn’t thinking of Joe’s position in the field. “Listen, David… Joe had an accident. He wasn’t feeling well, and it turned out, something inside of him burst, like a balloon. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late.” I asked her what it was too late for. “David, Joe…  Joe died. He died.” She didn’t cry. She just stared at me, as if I were about to make a vital decision about something. It seemed as if I was being tested.

Here is where my memory fails me. I have no idea what I did next. Did I cry? Probably. I would cry if I got benched back then. But I wouldn’t have been crying out of grief. I think I would have been crying because that’s what I assumed I was supposed to do. The next part, I do remember. I went to bed early that night and stayed awake for hours, trying to think. I wasn’t thinking about death, or if I could die, or if Mum or Dad or one of my siblings could die. I was thinking of what I remembered about Joe. I didn’t come up with much.

But Joe suddenly became a centerpiece of my life. I found myself scouring my brain for little details, a certain hat he wore, his place in the team, the number on the back of his shirt. In life, he was one of many; in death, he rose up, a singular entity, worthy of studious remembrance and commemoration. Joe was no longer an anonymous face in the crowd; he had become the crowd.

It occurred to me that if I had known him better… it would have been unbearable. But that didn’t stop me from trying to make friends with every single teammate I had, from then on.

As I have grown older, I have faced more death, and more loss, and more suffering. Each and every time, it seems impossible to grasp. They were here a moment ago, and they’re not now. What left? Where did they go? I should have been nicer to them, I should have sent them a Christmas card, I should have not been so busy all the time. I should have known a day like this would come, sometime.

I’m not sure why I suddenly thought about Joe again today.  But the thing about sudden tragedies, you see, is that whoever has been lost has a tendency to spring from the depths of your brain to the forefront. Every interaction with them, every second you spent with them, whether it was to tell them you loved them, to fight with them over the last chip, or simply to provide them, a passing acquaintance, the woman you see on the train once a week, with a “bless you” when they sneezed, the memories seem to gather the gravity of scripture. It all takes on a glow, like they were followed by this white gleam shining beneath them, a pale, endless spotlight. You don’t even need to have met the person; when they’re gone, even passing conversations about them seem etched in time. It was like they were the most significant part in your life, though you never could have known it.

If there is a better reason to celebrate life while we have it, and everyone we come into contact with in our cluttered tunnels, I haven’t found it.


Battle of the sexes

I’m on the job hunt these days, and a friend of mine just quit the one she’s had for two years. This piqued my interest because hers was the sort of role that I always found interesting and even coveted. But she insists that I’d be a fool to go for it. “I quit this job to go into the job market, as tough as it is. Doesn’t that tell you anything?”

She has a point. Right now, even the rats in London are claiming benefits. I tried to explain to her my own situation and why I wanted – needed – to move on. She wouldn’t have it. She said the job was demeaning and demoralising and degrading and any other progressive adjective with the de- prefix, save for maybe detoxifying. It will break your spirit, she said. It’s a bunch of delusional balding men trying to hang on to their waning libidos, she said. You’ll hate it there just as much.

Then she paused. “Well… you’re a guy. It might be easier for you.”

I knew immediately what she meant, but I can’t figure out whether or not to agree with her. I know what she was trying to get across: that it was a work environment that perhaps isn’t as accommodating to women as it is to men (which I think is classified as “illegal,” but hey, never you mind). And I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted by the implication. Would I be complicit, a willing party, if I benefited from an environment that excludes women? (And seriously, boys, the Mad Men days are over. You can’t even smoke in the office anymore.)

These are all fascinating questions, really – they are, honest – but, me being me, her comment got me thinking about myself, and myself only. It affected me less on the Should-I-Take-This-Job-If-Offered front and more on the Wait… I’m-A-Guy? front.

The concept that there is some fundamental difference between the sexes, something deep down, ingrained, either through nature or nurture, a little pink or blue dot in the middle of our brains that determines how we see the world, is one that has always frustrated me.

It’s always been my belief – and feel free to mock here, because everybody does – that men and women are essentially the same. We all just want happiness, and peace, and comfort. We might go about it differently on occasion, but shit, we’re all on the same team here. But no one ever agrees with me.

I missed the blokes’ handbook they evidently handed out in primary school, along with the What’s Happening to My Body? book. I don’t think of myself as some member of an enormous fraternity, a man before I’m a human. I mean, I can barely grow a decent mat of chest hair, I really love Meryl Streep and I often talk to little babies and small, furry animals using words like “cute yiddle puddy wuddy.” If I’m supposed to be a representative of some guy culture by my very existence, I think I’m doing a very poor job. Shit, sometimes, get this, I even talk about my feelings.

But the rest of the world doesn’t seem to see it that way. And I wonder if I have a choice. I will admit, there are most certainly benefits I have received only because I am a guy, most of which I’ve never noticed and likely never will. But I didn’t sign up for this. I’m just a person, like everybody else.

I fail the Bloke Test in almost every way. Sure I talk meaningless shit about girls with the guys – and sometimes to the girls, which usually gets me in trouble. But that’s all it is to me – meaningless shit. I’ve never been in a real fight. I own no weaponry. If pressed, I’ll confess I prefer cricket, and maybe even tennis, to football. Wrestling and Formula One confuse me. I don’t spit in public. I worry about my weight. I’m not sensitive about my penis size (OK, maybe a little).

These are all stereotypes, urban legends, myths passed down through the generations. (When did they become hard, real ways to live our lives?) But I’ll never be able to live them down.

Put it this way: I was out with some friends the other evening, and one of them, a post-grad student, mentioned that she was working on a paper. She asked everyone she knew a question: If you found out your partner had developed a deep emotional attachment to someone of the opposite sex, would it bother you more than if he/she had meaningless sex with someone he/she hardly knew?

The student claimed that of the 50-something-odd people she asked, every single woman said she would be more bothered by the deep emotional connection, and every single man said he would be more bothered by the sex. She revealed this after she’d polled us, and, lo and behold, her postulate proved accurate. The four women didn’t care so much about the sex, and the two guys (myself included) did, quite so. The student was quite pleased with herself, convinced she’d stumbled across a universal truth.

I dissented, strongly. Listen, I calmly explicated, the reason I give that answer is not that I’m a guy. Don’t we, as humans, have the right, no, the duty, to develop as many “deep emotional connections” with as many people as possible? If I recognise someone as some sort of kindred spirit, male or female, why is it wrong for me to pursue a relationship – and by “relationship,” I mean an exploration of another person’s mind and thought processes, not anything sexual – with them? Isn’t it inherently flawed thinking to limit ourselves to enjoying the company of only one person, female or male? Would a girlfriend of mine object to me making a new male friend? Isn’t the real betrayal sex, and cheating, and lying?

For not the first time, the group of women laughed at me. “Guy,” they said. “You’re just a guy, and you’re full of shit, and you know it.”

See what I’m up against here?


The first kiss

Like any red-blooded boy of the age of 13, when I was growing up, I imagined nothing the Almighty had created could compare with kissing a girl. I did the whole deal: making out with pillows, feeling up two slightly deflated footballs… When I started to become comfortable with the fact that my parents knew puberty was beginning to rear its hairy head — well, I’m still not entirely comfortable with it, to be honest — I would cut out all the models from Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions, put them on my walls and give them little comic-strip thought balloons, saying stuff like, “David, you’re hot!” and “David, James Bond has nothing on you.”

In my imagination, I was a torrid lover, a machine, a manly cat the kittens couldn’t keep their paws off… well, let’s face it, guys, I was Shaft. Unfortunately, I was a most private dick; even though a few of my friends had tales of heavy petting debauchery, usually with an older girl, typically in a dark room somewhere and often involving zippers, rubber gloves and mayonnaise, I, at 13, had still never properly kissed a girl (I’m talking about real snogging here, not the quick, stolen pecks on the cheek with Stacy behind the primary school washrooms when I was 11, although, at the time, they were meaningful). The closest I came was taking a girl in to the school bazaar; she ended up leaving with another guy when I told her, no, sorry, I can’t go to hang out the mall afterwards because my Dad is picking me up bang on 6 o’clock, can’t be late. (Emily, I haven’t forgotten you… contact me, if you ever want to talk.)

I thought it was never going to happen. Then, my childhood friend Andy started dating the local football coach’s daughter, and I was lucky (so lucky) enough to accompany him on a few of their dates. Mostly, they would sneak off to a dark corner, and he would touch her breasts (He touched her breasts! He even grabbed them!) and kiss her cheek, and I was off trolling around, hoping neither of them noticed that I was watching.

I mean, what must it be like? You’ve got a girl there… and you can do anything with her! Sure, one time Andy sneaked his hands a little too low, and she let out a shriek and told him to stop it, but I suspect that’s just because they were out in public. When they were alone, who knew what kind of insanity went on? I bet he even kissed her with his tongue.

Imagination was all I had. I was helpless with women, and rather than face the embarrassment of being rejected, I just avoided them. It wasn’t until I joined a local youth club that I finally met a girl who would talk to me.

Her name was Michelle, and I was the first person she’d ever kissed, too. She was a shy, bookish girl, with big glasses that I think also helped the sight of anyone who happened to be standing behind her (within 10 feet). She was a year below me in school and wanted nothing more than to get straight As, be a bridesmaid in her best friend Julianne’s wedding, meet David Hasselhoff (believe it or not, there was a time when The Hoff was considered sexy) and not be late to Sunday school. She was a proper sweet straight-laced schoolgirl, and sex was something that would be not be even thought of until her wedding night, and even then only if you’re lucky.

I liked her because she was nice and funny and a good decent girl — this was during a period of my life in which I wanted to be a minister; that might be surprising to you, and probably strikes you as something I should delve into deeper, but I won’t, because it’s not really all that interesting, and besides, it was a very long time ago, and I’m such a sinner now I’d feel guilty even thinking about it — but mostly I liked her because she had enormous breasts and I thought maybe if I was really, really nice and gave her flowers and told her I loved her and took her to movies and made nice with her friends and held her hand, she might let me touch them.

I was willing to wait. Once I finally dug up the nerve to ask her out, we had three dates. The first was to a movie, Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox. Mum wouldn’t let me go unless I had a chaperone, so Andy, who was a year older, also came along… if only Mum knew the stuff I’d seen Andy do! The second was also to a movie, the name of which I have forgotten.

The third night, I knew it was time to make my move. It must have been a particularly ribald weekend in Hollywood, because all the films at the cinema were rated R, save for one. So Andy and Michelle and her friend Julianne and I marched up to the ticket window, plunked down our cash and headed in to see Back To The Future.

The scene was toward the end, when the band is playing “Earth Angel” and Marty McFly is starting to fade from existence because his parents-to-be aren’t getting together on the dancefloor as they were destined to in 1955. The tension was high; would this be the end of our hero? Michelle gripped my arm. I touched her hand. She looked at me. I leaned in. She leaned in. Closer. Closer. I puckered up (this was fucking it! Oh man oh man oh man!) and planted my lips on hers, where they remained for about, oh, half a second. We were in a cinema, but I could still see her blush. As did I, when Andy, sitting right behind us, began to giggle.

And that was my first kiss. Years later, at Julianne’s wedding, I gave a toast. I saluted Jules and her husband, and made a joke about initially spending time with her to get closer to Michelle, my first kiss, someone I’d never forget. Michelle blushed then, too, though I think she might have been drunk. She ended up marrying a grocer or something, and I think they have a couple of children, both shy and bookish with enormous glasses. Curious to see how their breasts turn out.


The one I love

I’ve been chatting online with a friend of mine who’s been quite distraught at the prospect of her cat being put down. Listening to my friend mourn her pet brought memories flooding back of my own experience a few decades ago and inspired this piece I wrote for a writing challenge on the theme of “Love & Loss”.

 

He was there when she was alone and needed a friend. Now her pet is dying, and she feels helpless.

When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my family was visiting some neighbour friends for a late-night barbeque. As tended to be the case, the adults would sit around the grill and bitch about their marriages, or their jobs, or their children, whatever came to mind after a six-pack or two. We kids were relegated to the garden, free to roam around as long as we were within eyesight and able to stop, drop and roll at a moment’s notice. I was running around stupidly, freely, as children are wont to do, when I came across a small kitten, likely a stray. He was gray and dirty and had the cutest little nose. Unlike most cats I’d come across at the time, he didn’t seem to mind when I picked him up and roughed him up a bit. He was sweet and funny and even jumped up on my lap when I was lying in the grass, daydreaming. He was the friendliest cat I’d ever come across.

A cat seemed like the ideal pet for her. Cats are easy. All you really have to do is feed them and change their litter box. Cats aren’t like dogs; they don’t need attention. They just go about their own thing, eating, sleeping, shitting, licking themselves. The world of a cat is a blissful one, and it is decidedly solitary. They just go about their merry way, living their content, spoiled little lives, and if you end up playing with them, it’s because they have allowed you to.

She loved that concept. As nice as dogs are, you could pretty much smack them upside their head with a two-by-four, and after the cobwebs cleared and the blood was wiped out of their eyes, they’d happily come drooling back for more. Not cats. They don’t need you. They’re just fine without you, thank you very much. You have to earn the respect of a cat. They figure out whether or not they like you, and then they conclude if you’re worth hanging out with.

Her brother has the best way with cats. He has little interest in pets and he’s particularly not a fan of cats. So he just completely ignores them, not even implying any interest in their activities, a difficult task, since there are four of them roaming around his house. What happens? The cats, appreciative of not being picked up and snuggled when they just want to sleep, can’t get enough of the guy. He has to peel them off of him anytime he’s just trying to watch the telly. He often tells me that this is also how you’re supposed to deal with women, which, well, is a notion that might be of some value.

We were just fooling around. I would grab a leaf, rub it against his nose, then throw it so he could chase it around. He’d grab it in his teeth, bat at it with his paws, knock it across the grass and then scamper after it again. Playing along, I’d swipe it from him, dangle it around his ears and giggle as he twirled wildly trying to find it. I even did that trick where you pretend to throw the leaf and keep it in your hand instead, tittering madly as he searched furiously for it. At last, I did wad the leaf up and throw it toward a fence that surrounded the garden and shared a boundary with the neighbour’s. Out of nowhere, I heard a chain rattling, a growl, a crunch, a shriek and, ultimately, a whimper.

So she decided she wanted a cat. She wouldn’t even rent a flat that wouldn’t let her have one. She didn’t care what type of cat; as long as she had a kitten, something whose mind she could shape and warp in her own image. Her brother and I, just happy that she’d moved the 300-odd miles north, went on the hunt and found a woman he’d worked with whose cat just shot out a litter. The middle one will be perfect for her, she said; he’s sprightly and energetic and very affectionate. She’ll be living alone. She’ll need all the affection she can get… I mean… when you guys are not around, of course!

Thus, on one Sunday afternoon, about two weeks after she’d arrived in New York, a city in which she knew hardly anyone, a furry little tiger runt showed up at her new flat, announcing his presence by crying and sprinting under the bed. At first, inexperienced in having her own pet, she rushed after him, trying to calm him and instantly make him her friend. She learned quickly enough… just leave him alone. After a few hours, he peeked his head out from under the covers, looked left, looked right, and slowly, slowly, slowly crawled tentatively toward the living room. She tossed him a play toy she’d bought for the occasion. He hopped back, frightened, and bolted out of the room. Within 30 seconds, he was back, gnawing on the toy. She just watched, quietly. A half hour later, he was attacking her feet. An hour after that, he was on her lap, sleeping, and she knew he was hers. Or, more accurately, she was his. She named him Simba.

Many friends of hers in Pennsylvania had cats, and she thought they treated them too much like, well, too much like cats. They would end up either hiding under the bed anytime company would come over, or they would be the fat blob of hair taking up half the couch, a piece of furniture that needs to be fed. Her cat wouldn’t be like that, she vowed. He was just her flatmate, and he could do whatever he wanted just like any other flatmate. Want to sit on the kitchen counter? Dude, go ahead; it’s your place too. Want to eat the leftover pizza? Want to scratch up the wooden sofa legs? Want to bite my arm? Hey, it’s your prerogative. Who am I to tell you what to do? I have no business telling you how to live your life; like I know what I’m doing.

And he was awesome, the most personable animal this side of a car salesman. He would welcome any visitor with a hop up on the lap and a nibble on the wrist. He was just another guy — having him fixed was an ordeal she lamented for days — and he became more a pal than an inferior household pet. He would fall asleep wherever she ended up at night — whether it was the bed, the sofa or, on those particularly rough nights, the floor — and he ran the place however he saw fit. He even helped her out by charming what few guys she could coerce to come over to the flat. (Sometimes being a girl living alone with a cat does have its advantages.)

It has always seemed to me that, in a way, we’re closer to our pets than we could ever be to another human being. You can pick your nose, fart, masturbate, whatever, the types of things you could only otherwise do alone, with your pet in the room and not even think twice, not even hesitate. It’s a natural closeness. That’s the type of relationship she had with Simba.

She talked whimsically about how insane it would be for Simba, who as a cat was likely to live for close to 20 years, to go through changes with her, to move to new places, to meet the man she’d love, to play with her children. You have a cat for a long time, and, sometimes, they’re actually a bit of work. With Simba, it was a commitment she didn’t think twice about making.

Immediately, it was obvious something was wrong. I hurried guiltily over to the fence and saw an enormous dog, blood dripping from its jaws, scurry away. And on the ground, eyes wide wide wide open, was my little kitten. There were two puncture wounds, one just below his neck and one just below his ribcage. The cat was feeling no pain, not yet; it just lay there, in shock, lacking understanding. I was vaguely aware that I might have caused this… if I just hadn’t have thrown the leaf near the fence. And then came the gasps. Later that evening, my mother explained that the dog’s bite, its horrific CHOMP!, likely broke the kitten’s ribs and collapsed its lungs. But all I remember are the gasps. The desperate thrusts for air, a wheeze, a cough, another wheeze. There was simply no air to be found. He wearily lifted his eyes up to me, what happened, oh God I can’t breathe, what is going on? I found myself eerily calm. He is going to die. I ran to the bathroom, grabbed a wet rag and ran back out to him. And for the next two hours, until my parents made me leave, I lay there with my gasping kitten, wiping his brow, trying to ease his suffering, making sure he was not alone.

Her cat is dying. It started about four months ago, when her flatmate complained that Simba, entirely out of character, had urinated on her bed. After changing the sheets and apologising profusely, she watched as Simba promptly hopped on her own bed and pissed there too. She took him to the vet, who told her he had a urinary infection, common for male cats. He gave her some pills (he gave the cat some too) and told her to make sure he drank plenty of water.

Simba was better for about a week, but then he was right back at it again, this time not urinating, but instead depositing little droplets of blood across the flat. It was almost cute; he was conditioned to the litter box, so he would only go on places that weren’t the floor, like the bed, or rugs, or pieces of clothing lying around. She rushed him back to the vet, who said his bladder was blocked, or his tract was swelling, or something, she didn’t really understand what. He said Simba would need surgery, and that it would cost her about several hundred dollars. This was money she didn’t have just sitting around, but there was no way she was letting her cat suffer. Plus, the place was starting to smell. Simba had the surgery and was fine for about three months.

And then last week when she found a dark red spot on the rug. She called the vet, bitching up a storm about paying all that money for a surgery that would only help for three months.

“Yeah, we were afraid that was going to happen. Listen, we weren’t sure at the time, but this is a chronic thing. This isn’t going away. We can perform another surgery on him, but this is likely going to happen again in three months, or two, or one. And it’s just going to get worse.”

“So what do I do?”

“Well, he’s going to be in a lot of pain. I don’t think it’s right to let him suffer.”

“Yeah, but how do I fix him?”

“We’re not sure we can.”

“Wait, you’re not saying… ?”

That’s what he was saying.

About a year later, I was riding my bike by the very same house we visited that night. It was the middle of the afternoon. No one was home. I noticed the dog, a big nasty mean ugly dog, sleeping in the neighbour’s front garden. Stealthily, I hopped off the bike and jumped the fence. I stood there watching that dog for a while, trying to will myself into kicking it right in the stomach, but I couldn’t do that. So I just leapt over the fence again and pedalled away, feeling empty.

She is taking Simba to the vet tomorrow. She’s not certain what the vet will say, but she has a good idea. So now her cat is lying there, on the sofa, silent, motionless, in agony. Occasionally he’ll move his head, look up, eyes wide wide wide open, and let out an anguished yet muted rowwrghhhhhhhhhh, then put his head back down. Christ, is there anything worse than an animal in pain? The poor fucking thing… just lying there, crying, screaming, wondering what in the world is happening to it… incapable of adequately communicating how much this fucking hurts.

As “owners,” we have little control over our pets’ lives. We feed them, clean their litter boxes, make sure they’re not living in total filth. That’s about all we do. Yet she keeps thinking that she’s done something wrong, that she fed him the wrong food, or didn’t pay enough attention to him, or didn’t change the litter often enough. She could have done something. This is her fault. It isn’t, or so I keep telling her, but to her, it sure feels that way.

Oh God, she says. He just jumped up here, on my desk, next to my computer. He’s looking at you on the screen. Did he know we were talking about him? How did he have the strength to make the leap? He’s staring at me now. Does he know? Is he aware? Can he understand? Is he angry? Does he know how much he’s meant to me? Has he ever known?

And then the anguished cry: Oh, Simba, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. We have been through so much. I don’t know what to do without you…


Rum diary

It occurs to me, suddenly, in the middle of Month Four of 2012, that I might drink too much.

I don’t mean that I’m in that Leaving Las Vegas, pints-of-rum-with-my-cereal league, not yet anyway; most of the veins in my face are still, as of now, not visible. I just mean, well, let’s just say that in London there are two pubs whose bartenders know me by name, three by face and one or two others by reputation.

I don’t drink in the mornings, and unless it’s Friday or Saturday (or Monday… or Tuesday…) I don’t drink in the afternoons either. But it’s amazing, in this city, how much one’s social life revolves around alcohol.

After work, I’ll meet a friend or colleague for drinks, or I’ll grab drinks after a movie, or I’ll stop by a party with an open bar, or I’ll stop by for drinks to make notes for blogging about stopping by for drinks.

I don’t think too much of this typically, considering it’s all second nature. The major appeal for me of going to a pub is the social aspect. Except for when the appeal is solitude, which, I realise while writing this, means the reasons I like going to pubs are to be with people and to be alone, which I guess just about covers everything.

Shit, that doesn’t sound good… Tell you what, just forget that last sentence, I’m screwing up my own point, let’s start over…

It’s just that I don’t really think I drink that often, and I never figured those close to me thought I did either. True, when old friends visit me, they often mention that they don’t remember the last time they were this drunk, and then they remember it was the last time they were with me.

I think that’s because their lives are relatively boring, what with their celebrity-handling job and random sexual encounters and all.

Anyway, it’s not like I was ever thought of as the class drunk, the guy who has sudden attacks of rage when he has a few too many rum and Cokes. In fact, there was a long period of several years when I didn’t drink at all.

I always considered myself the drinking buddy, the person who was always willing to throw back a few with friends, always happy to lend an open ear to a mate in need of counsel or just someone to talk to. And usually they opened up more after a few beers, or a few shots, or maybe just some ether.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling people are starting to talk. More and more, I’m receiving ominous comments from all corners.

I always remember that when I changed jobs a few years back, my friend Clare complained that she was worried about me leaving because “who will stay out all night drinking with me now?” Now, in my current workplace, I had a new member of staff come to my department asking for me by name. “Talk to David,” he’d been told, regarding a staff social evening at a nearby pub. “He’s hardcore.” Mr New Guy was pleased to meet me because he fancied himself a bit of a boozer and figured he could drink anyone under the table.

So it seems that people have been classifying me as a “heavy” drinker, though, I must say, I greatly prefer the term “accomplished” drinker.

I hit the nadir last week. I met up with the suspiciously seldom-mentioned Kate, and we were out, of all things, drinking, when she, with a straight and really not all that concerned face — well, I think she might have been drunk — asked me, “You’re not an alcoholic, are you?”

When someone who you sometimes think of as a somewhat of an occasional admirer — for whatever sick, sadistic reasons — says this to you, you tend to stand up, pay attention and look deep inside yourself.

Or at least you order another drink and laugh off the comment with a pithy, wiseacre comment about the shakes being gone and that’s great, not worried anymore, ha ha, then change the subject to how lovely she looks, yes, yes, quite lovely, and then try not to think about it until it unexpectedly and entirely inappropriately shows up in your next blog, oh my, hehehe.

All this said, I don’t think I have the intestinal fortitude to become a bona fide we’re-all-worried-about-David alcoholic. I think I started too late. I didn’t drink until my 20s — my fellow nerd friends and I always felt that we didn’t “need” alcohol to have a good time. God, how silly and naïve we were.

The first time I ever had a sip was at a party at journalism school at which I literally had rum forcibly poured down my throat while I was already taking medication for a head cold. At the end of the night, if I may blatantly steal a Woody Allen line, I tried to take my pants off over my head. Even then, though, I never really got on the booze bandwagon, and even though I was drinking a bit by the end of it… well, jeez, it was uni, so give a brother a break.

Anyway, I’ve slowed down a bit, even if I have graduated from scraping pennies together for a pint. But, you know, it’s hard in London, hard not to drink. I don’t know how my old housemate Mark, who has never sipped alcohol, could possibly do it; the guy goes to a pub and orders a Coke every time, though, to the bartender’s credit, he always has to say it twice, as if that couldn’t possibly be what he actually said.

I mean, if I gave up drinking, I’d have to give up all the things that drinking allows me to do, like convince myself my conversation is actually interesting… or dance… or karaoke… or, for that matter, sex. I don’t know if I’m willing to make those kinds of sacrifices, even if my reputation is starting to become a bit more soiled than I’d like it to be. There are a million different pubs in this great city, each with their own stories, their own people and their own price for pitchers.

So bring it on, New Guy. I accept your challenge. Let’s just keep it between us, OK? People are already starting to talk…


Pants on fire!

I lied to a journalist last week. It was not a sneaky misdirection, not a subtle not-quite-the-whole story, wink, wink. I flat-out, bald-faced (where did the expression “bald-faced” come from, anyway? As a 30-something-year-old who looks a lot younger, I’m pretty much bald-faced all the time), between clenched teeth, lied. Bore false witness. A falsification, a fib, a pulling of leg.

Now, as a journalist myself, I’m aware that if there’s one profession you don’t want to lie to, it’s a journalist. When they’re not piss drunk, those guys are crafty buggers, and they’ll find you out. It’s a tough game, interviewing people, being interviewed, and to survive it, you need powers of manipulation that I’ll never have.

Mind you, it’s not like we were discussing cancer research or nuclear fission here; my lie didn’t hurt anybody, and it was inconsequential enough that I shouldn’t even be worrying about it. She probably knew I was lying, and she probably didn’t care. Yet still it bothered me. She was nice, had written something nice about me in the past, and I thanked her by lying to her, even making up details to cover it up.

My mother loves to tell the story of the first time that she realised her darling boy was, in fact, capable of lying to her. I was about five, and we were having a family get-together at my grandfather’s. There was this cat, you see, and this cat was bothering me, meowing too loudly, biting too harshly, scratching too fiercely. Sitting next to this cat was, of all things, a can of white paint, open, with a brush lying tantalisingly just to the side. When you’re five, you don’t think, oh, shit, this jar of goo is something I shouldn’t mess with, and you certainly don’t consider the possibility that taking that brush and spreading it all over the cat is the type of matter that might potentially displease someone. The idea must have dawned eventually, though, because when the cat came stumbling out of the garage, smelling of paint and more than a little petrified, and the mothers came out accusing their own and each others’ kids… the one no one’s eyes were trained on was me, because I said I didn’t do it, and Mum knew I could never lie to her, and she told all the other mothers so and that was that and that was all.

Of course, when my mom’s sister-in-law noticed a certain white substance dripping off my trainers and a certain embarrassed downward glance from a totally busted 5-year-old, the game was up. Mum says she cried for two days afterward, and she never quite looked at me with same trusting innocence again.

I’m proud to say my lying-to-my-mother skills improved considerably as the years went on. (No, Mum, honestly, I was pulled over by violent, drooling scumbags who forced me to put those condoms in my pockets. Seriously!)

One of my least favourite claims people make about themselves is that they’re terrible liars, as in, “I tried to lie, but I’m just rubbish at it. I couldn’t keep a straight face.” This is supposed to, in their eyes, clue us into the fact that they’re essentially honest people and just couldn’t mask their inherent sincerity. This is, of course, total bullshit; the only difference between them and everyone else is that they’re incompetent fibbers, not that they’re reluctant ones. We all lie, often, daily, most likely to the people we care about most and listen to us closest, because we’re human beings and, with the possible exceptions of nuns, human beings are amoral, hedonistic, self-serving arseholes.

This calls into question even our most dear friendships, because the people who are supposed to know us best, the ones we pour our hearts out to, have probably been lied to by us more than anyone else. They’re probably little lies, harmless ones, I got a 30 rather than a 27 on my scores, that sort of thing. No, I didn’t sleep with her until the second date, small stuff. We tell our friends lies because they like us, and we want them to continue to. We try to paint ourselves in the most positive light, because, well, it’s hard to find people who like you, let alone like you the way you actually are. It comes to the point sometimes that I’m more honest with you, the reader, in this blog, than I am with my closest friends. I already know you don’t like me; no need to try to impress you.

Yet one of the most common questions I’m asked about this blog is, “Is all that shit you write about true?” Now, ignoring the fact that such a question accuses me of the most base of journalistic ethical breaches — I mean, we’re talking about writing something that is not true — but, well, wouldn’t that take all the fun out of it? I mean, what’s the point of writing a blog about my own life if I’m going to make shit up? What kind of depraved, desperate-for-attention human being would fabricate stories about being an idiot? How unbelievably pathetic would a person have to be to scream for help in such a primal, degenerate way? (Don’t answer that.) Of course this is true.

But where do I draw the line? In one article some months ago, I mentioned being selected one of London’s “20 Most Eligible Bachelors” by GQ magazine. Now, that’s obviously not true, since I threatened them with a lawsuit if they published my name. What single guy wants to be considered one of the city’s top eligible bachelors, anyway? But you knew I was joking when I wrote that, right? Do I have to make that clear? Do I lose credibility?

I was thinking about all this after I hung up with the journalist. I just fibbed to her. If she knows I’m capable of lying on the phone, doesn’t that call everything I’ve written into question? How can she believe anything I say again? Plus, I started feeling quite guilty. It’s not fun to lie to people; it leaves that nasty ashamed aftertaste, like sleeping with a girlfriend you just broke up with. Like that keys-and-phone song from Britain’s Got Talent, I couldn’t make it leave my brain.

So I called the journalist to make amends. After leaving a message, at last I got hold of her.

“Hey, listen, Leah… you know that thing you asked me about earlier? Listen, I’m sorry, I wasn’t completely honest about that whole thing. I was trying to keep our secret going, but I didn’t have to lie to you to do it. I just feel like an idiot. So, outside of this interview, friend to friend, I’m just really sorry.”

“OK.”

“Oh, but, um, everything else I said… that was all true. Honest.”

“Yeah. I understand. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”

Sigh. I haven’t read the story Leah wrote yet, but I hope it makes me look like a real prick. I figure I deserve it.


Summer camp

Did any of you ever go to a summer camp as a child? Could anything better summer camp? For anywhere from one week to two months, whoever you were at home — whether you were the youngest in a family of eight, a nerd with no friends, or just a regular boy looking for a change of pace — none of that mattered. You could completely reinvent yourself because you were with people who didn’t know you from Adam.

Your friends at camp weren’t the type of people you usually hung out with; they were just the guys who happened to be in your group, or the guys you were assigned to activities with. As far as they knew, you were the most popular guy at your school. You could actually be cool, for a week or so.

Gav got married a few years back, and his wedding was about as close to summer camp as this adult will ever get. On the grownup hand, everything was gorgeous, the bride looked ravishing, the food was fantastic, the reception was at this Devon hotel with a stunning, picturesque vista, or something. On the other hand, it was one big huge tequila-soaked party. That’s my kind of wedding.

***********************

Will is American and in some sort of sales. He went into greater detail about what exactly he does the night of the rehearsal, but it was loud at the bar and I couldn’t really understand him. He spent a lot of time on his mobile, though, talking about accounts and end-of-the-month sales goals and quotas and dammit, Joanne, just file the papers, file the freakin’ papers. Will is an excellent golfer, nearly bald, and lives in Philadelphia.

Josh is about to get engaged, I think. I’m told he’s in a serious relationship, and it’s only a matter of time. I couldn’t tell you what he does for a living. Something in engineering, maybe. Josh is a terrible golfer, even worse than me, is rather tall, and lives in Ireland.

That pretty much sums up all the personal information I have on each. Oh, and Will has this really loopy father who wears tweed jackets, writes books on American history, and actually tells knock-knock jokes with a straight face.

And for four days, Will and Josh were as close a group of friends as I’ve ever had.

Will and Josh were the other two ushers. Gav’s brother was the best man. (Isn’t meeting lifelong friends’ siblings a fascinating experience? If my friend Gav had chucked the corporate life and became a long-haired primary school teacher, he would be his brother. It was like Bizarro Gav.) But he brought a date, and, as tends to be the case, he was preoccupied with her most of the weekend. (Gav’s brother aside, considering his girlfriend was pretty and nice, I ask, why do we bother bringing casual dates to weddings? They’re always more trouble than they’re worth.) Will and Josh were dateless, like me. So, essentially, it was summer camp. Three guys, with everything paid for, with endless fountains of alcohol, scrubbed up real nicely and ready to stir up some shit.

Whatever you do when you’re home, when you’re thrust into the decadently formal chaos of being an usher at an out-of-town wedding, the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. It’s a world of endless free booze, attractive women in tight, sparkly dresses, and everyone in a raucous, joyous mood. The outside world doesn’t matter anymore.

And it was basically the three of us. Gav was busy, you know, getting married, so we were on our own. Almost immediately, it was us against the world. There was a wedding going on around us, but we were in our own world: three guys, drinking, talking girls, sharing old stories about the groom like we’d known each other forever.

We picked enemies, whether they deserved it or not. Most of the other guys in the wedding party were the brides’ friends, not the groom’s, and we, not to put too fine a point on it, found them insufferable idiots, total snot-nosed kids whom we ultimately labelled “The Yahoos.” We joked about which bridesmaids were the hottest. We sucked tequila shots off the table. We sat in the corner and snidely mocked anyone, really, who wasn’t us. Because we were the only cool ones.

It had the feel of a locker room. To be honest, it was a lot like a sports team, actually, to the point where we even started using sports clichés to describe what made us such excellent ushers. We talked about “giving 110 percent” and “leaving it all out there on the altar.” We stayed up late and blabbed every night. All we were missing was towel snapping.

Hanging out with Will and Josh helped me to understand why people join fraternities. Just a bunch of fellas, causing trouble, being guys.

***********************

The night before the wedding, after the rehearsal, the entire wedding party shambled over to a nearby watering hole and commenced more heavy drinking. Will and Josh settled in with a group of attractive women, of course, and I caught Gav’s eye. After a few shots of tequila, we decided to go outside and get some fresh air, and, the night before his wedding, talked for about two hours, man to man. When we both came to London, around the same time, we were the two single guys with no girls around, ever. And here he was, almost a married man.

You know that point when your friends make that leap into true happiness? When they put themselves in a position where you know they’ve got it, they have it all figured out? When they become a man? That was Gav that night. I’d never seen a guy just grin like that. It was all he could do not to start jumping up and down, twirling about, shouting, “I’m getting married tomorrow! To her! Me! Woooo!”

It was really something to see. I felt honoured to have the opportunity.

***********************

Ultimately, the wedding came and went, we all drank, I had the strange experience with a tennis player, and we folded into the hotel room. I was quite intoxicated and, thanks to my recent breakup, rather depressed.

OK, a lot depressed. By the end of the night, with Josh, Will, Will’s wedding hookup, and another friend in the room, I had decided to lie down on the floor between the air conditioner and the bed because “I didn’t deserve to be anywhere but on the floor, like the pathetic worm I am.” Many of my friends would have left me there, or tried to reason with me, or told me about how they’d had troubles with women too. Not Josh. He walked over and blurted in his Irish brogue, “Jeezus, David, get up. Christ.” And I did, and we talked for three hours, and he pulled me out of it, and the Ushers reigned triumphant again.

The next day, everybody left to go back to their lives. I shook Will’s hand, then Josh’s. I made them promise to invite me to their weddings, eventually. I’m sure they won’t. I’d be surprised if I ever see either of them again, to be honest. But, for one weekend, we were the Three Ushers. We left it all out there at the altar. We pushed ourselves to be the best. And we drank. Oh, how we drank!

I was chatting with Gav and asking after the other guys a few days ago which is why, perhaps, this whole piece has the feel of a postcard, a note containing nothing but in-jokes that only those involved would understand. That’s fine. That’s the way it should be. That’s summer camp.


Gym rat

My friend Sheldon is a lucky guy. He’s very tall, first off, a vastly underrated attribute; you can get away with a lot of physical deficiencies if you’re very tall. (You know there are women out there who will only date tall guys? No matter what kind of guy a short fella might be, they won’t even give anyone under, say, 6-foot-1 a chance. It’s terrible. Thankfully, men are never so shallow.) But Sheldon’s real talent, if you ask me, is his ability to stay the exactly same weight and shape as he was in college. It’s quite amazing, really; I’ve seen the boy down two Big Macs, two portions of fries plus ice cream like it was nothing, and he never looks any worse for wear. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to fit back in the car.

It doesn’t matter if Sheldon injected a gallon of bacon fat into his neck every day for the next three years, the man would not gain a pound. He’s tall, scrawny and infinite; save for maybe a bald spot, potential spectacles and future forays into facial hair, he’ll look exactly the same in 20 years as he does right now.

Like the rest of the planet, I am not so fortunate.

I’m not rich, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m making enough money to not have to worry about bouncing cheques, late rent payments or having to skip meals. That’s all fine and good, of course, but this has led to a comfort level that is bordering on deterioration. Being a happy member of tax-paying society has its advantages — erm… Monday morning conversational stimulants… um… unlimited stapler access — but, at its core, it requires that I spend a lot of time sitting in meetings or sitting on my arse in front of computers. It leads to inactivity, complacency… and corpulence.

Let’s face it: I’ve gained some weight. It’s time to stop pretending I haven’t. I’ve tried to lie to myself about it. I’ve blamed family genes. I’ve blamed the mirrors in my flat for being at the wrong angle. I’ve even scolded the dry cleaners for shrinking my clothes. But it’s all bullshit. I’ve gained a little weight. I’m 39 years old, with expendable income, a desk job (sort of) and poor dietary habits. It was bound to happen.

I have a weird thing about weight. In the past, I’ve starved myself for weeks at a time, I’ve spent months eating only a couple pieces of wheat bread a day, I’ve even resorted to taking diet pills. These techniques were marginally effective at best, and they required more effort than they offered production. And, frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to do them anymore. They’re the last resorts of a crazy person, someone with serious huge strange weird weight issues, and though I might be that person, it’s just not feasible to live life that way. I’d either have another heart attack at 40 or pass out climbing the stairs to my office. Not going to happen. Besides, a certain measure of being an eight-hours-at-a-desk guy is complacency; if I’d decided I’d had enough, there are plenty of working-outside construction jobs waiting for you, matey. No? Then stop complaining.

Nope. There are two ways I could go with this new problem. First, I could just keep doing what I’m doing and try to talk my way out of it. This has been the plan for the last few months or so. I’ve employed a number of cute linguistic tricks in order to deceive what my friends’ and family’s eyes are clearly telling them, but I always fall back on one.

The trick? A case study in passive aggression. Whinge about how I’m a fat pig and disgusting and obese and repulsive and how I’m the most repulsive, overweight human I know and I have no idea how they can even talk to someone so sickening. Now, I’m not obese. I’m not even close to it. I’m just not in good shape. I know that, they know that, but they might not necessarily know that I know that. So I just go on and on like that for a while, and eventually, out of exhaustion and pity, they tell me, “David, you’re being silly, you’re clearly not fat.” I feel better in a completely vacuous way, and I got them to say it: David, you’re not obese. If they are thinking that I think I’m too fat, maybe they won’t notice that the obvious: That I’m carrying an extra 10 or so. (I’ve even done this, repeatedly, to a couple of girls I like, which I’m sure they find irresistibly hot.)

But this is a waste of time for all involved, and ultimately someone will notice the emperor has no clothes. So I’m taking the next step, the one everyone says they’ll take but never does: I’ve started going to the gym.

I’ve toyed with this notion in the past, but I don’t think anyone, myself included, ever really thought I’d go through with it. But the decay of the body is inevitable — I’m beginning to notice rather cavernous wrinkles around my eyes, and I recently had my first back spasm. I’m a grownup! — and you can only hide so long. It’s time to suck it up.

So I did. A few months back, as the guest of a friend, I visited a posh London fitness club where, as it turned out, lots of gay men go to lift and separate. A tall (tall!) gay man named Marvin showed me around, saying, “You’ll have some fun here. You’ll love it.” (I pity young gay men. You can’t get away with being flabby if you’re a youthful gay man. Straight guys can always find some poor sap woman who likes us because of our souls, or our hearts, or our bank accounts, someone willing to overlook the love handles and double chins. Young gay men, being young men, are intensely shallow and only care about looks. Got to be rough. I knew instantly that if I joined that gym, every day I would have been the worst-looking guy there.) But it was too far from work and home to seriously consider becoming a member. A hundred quid a month worth of a member, that is!

Instead, I’ve started using the free, quite-well-equipped sports centre at work. My goal is to just run on the treadmill at least four times a week and maybe lift a few light weights. Plus, as an added bonus, I’ll often have company (or distraction) in the lovely shapes of Kelly and Lara. Will it work? Do I have the willpower to do it? Can I pull it off? Well, it certainly beats arguing with my friends on the extent of my grotesqueness.

The worst part about this is that it’s not going to get any easier. The body doesn’t bounce back as well as it used to, and that’s not going to turn around. I have a feeling I’ve signed myself up for a life sentence; as the gym rat, constantly spinning on the wheel, trying to outrun time and death. I don’t like my odds.


Jamie Sherwood* is a pussy

*Not his real name, of course...

A friend was telling me the other day that her boyfriend, Jamie, sometimes cries around her.

This was rather stunning to me, and I told her so. Your boyfriend just cries? Like, when he’s upset? She was confused by my questions. I think her perception was that I was feeding her some sort of macho bullshit posturing, mocking him for being sensitive. She was partly right, of course; I did think he was kind of a pussy. (And still do.) But I was more befuddled than anything else. The guy just cries. Seriously?

I don’t cry. I just don’t. It’s not because I’m some tough guy, or because nothing affects me, or because I just lack the ducts. Crying is just not something I do, and I’m not even sure I would remember how if, God forbid, I actually had a reason to.

As a child, I used to cry all the time. If my sister was making too much noise, if my mum made me eat black eyed peas, if I was bowled for a duck, anything was grounds for loud, relentless wailing. My parents weren’t quite sure what to make of me. I seemed like a relatively well-adjusted child, albeit one who tended to attract too much attention to himself, but for some reason, I would cry over anything. My father was the most bothered by this; it’s hard to brag about your honour student son when you have to drag him screaming from the shopping centre because you wouldn’t buy him the toy he wanted.

And then, out of nowhere, I just stopped. I think it’s probably genetics. We’re not a family of criers. I could count the number of times I’ve seen my mother cry on one hand. I think part of that had to do with her job. When you’ve been a nurse, you’ve seen so much sadness or pain on a daily basis that you almost have to desensitise yourself to it just to stay sane. And my father? I’ve only seen him cry once, at his mother’s funeral. We were following the hearse to the graveyard, and, out of nowhere, he just exploded in a brief, violent spasm. It lasted about three seconds. I was too shocked to talk. He wiped his eyes immediately, collected himself, sneezed and mumbled something about “this dust irritating my bloody sinuses.” And we never spoke of that again. Which was, you know, just fine with me.

In the last 14 years, I have cried twice. The first was at my grandfather’s funeral, my father’s father, just a week before I left for London. I had actually stayed rather composed throughout, taking questions and comforting my mum, who actually seemed more distraught than my father did. I was doing fine until I walked up to the casket. The physical resemblance of my father to my grandfather is almost uncomfortable; Dad looked like a younger clone. And I guess I look like a younger version of my father. I stood there, and thought about my father lying there, and then me, and then my son if I ever had one, and I just lost it. My mother started crying too. But, then, like my father, I collected myself, embarrassed, and didn’t cry again for 10 years.

I’m proud to report that I never cried after I split with The American, the one I’d been certain was The One — no small feat, if I say so myself, because I was quite traumatised. After I dropped her off at Heathrow, for her flight back to New York, I headed back toward my home in Surrey on the M25. On the radio came Radiohead’s 1997 song “Exit Music (For a Film),” or, as my mate Richard calls it, “music to kill yourself to.” If there were going to be a time to break down, that would have been it. I was alone. Thom Yorke is screaming in agony. My life had just swerved sharply in an entirely unforeseen direction. But I didn’t. I just sighed and drove home and drank, for about nine months, actually.

It was at the end of that nine months that I cried for the final time. I was in the Caribbean, about to fly back to London, and some friends and I, quite sad I was leaving, decided to spend a beautiful Sunday late afternoon at the beach. Somebody — I could never remember who — produced a bottle of babash. I’d never tried this West Indian moonshine rum before, and it has quite a fearsome reputation, so I was a bit hesitant. It blew me away. A few sips later I was hugging everyone and telling them how much I loved them, saying things like, “We are the only two fuckers on the planet who understand, man.” We walked into the ocean, and laughed and danced and howled at the moon. Somebody lit a little fire, we all grabbed drinks and sat around in the sand. I was in the middle of a sentence about what life was like in London, and how I missed my friends in the Caribbean, when all of a sudden Stacy’s face went sullen.

“David? Oh, David, what’s wrong?” I told her nothing was wrong, I’m fine, I’m just trying to tell my story. “Oh God… I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?” Stacy, what are you talking about? Jeez. “You’re crying. Why?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She took my hand and guided it to my face. It came away wet. And I suddenly realised there were tears streaming down my face, and that I appeared to be sobbing uncontrollably. I turned to Stacy. “Whoa,” I said. “I am crying. Crazy.”

I have not drunk babash since, and, um, I can’t say I’m in much of a hurry to again.

So why don’t I cry? I don’t know, actually. Maybe I am trying too hard to be a tough guy. Maybe I’ve become so shallow that nothing can affect me at anything more than the most peripheral level. Or maybe, just maybe… I don’t really have all that much to cry about.

These days, I think the only way you could get me to cry would be to kick me in the groin while peeling an onion under my nose. This confluence of circumstances happens so rarely, however, that I feel I should be safe for a while.

You pussies!


The Guest House

I was away on the weekend so didn’t get around to my usual blog posting. Some old friends invited me to the dedication of their baby daughter,  the most gorgeous thing ever. (Alice, if you’re reading this when you’re much, much older — if you still have that smile of yours, well… mankind lies at your feet!)

The poem The Guest House by the Persian poet and mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, was read by her dad at the church and it reminded me a little of “On Joy And Sorrow” by another Persian poet I like, Khalil Gibran. This got me thinking again on The Beauty Of Sadness, more so later that evening when I received sad news about the untimely death of an old schoolmate. Perhaps you too can find some meaning in their words…

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

- Rumi

**********************************

ON JOY AND SORROW

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your
laughter rises was oftentime filled with your tears…
When you are joyous, look deep into
your heart and you shall find it is only
that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in
your heart, and you shall see that in truth
you are weeping for that which has been
your delight.

- Khalil Gibran


The proper authorities

I spent the night at a friend’s place the other night, and we left for work together the next morning. It’s been a while since I’ve had to do this kind of journey, having surrendered my 90-minute slog from Surrey, just over a year ago, for a two-mile stroll into work every morning. You might think I’m crazy, but riding the London Underground every morning used to provide me with quiet pleasure. Since work is pretty close to the end of Met Line, I usually always had a seat. I’d grab a copy of the Metro, or get out a book, plop down, stretch my legs and kick back. By the time I’d finished with the paper, I was at my stop. No waiting to change lanes, no dickheads blaring their horns, no stressful left turns at busy intersections. I just zoned out, caught up on the news and before I knew it, my ride was over. It was quite nice.

A lot of it depends on what line you’re on, though. A mate lives way out east in Becontree, Essex, and his trains on the District Line can be notoriously unreliable. Sometimes the trains will run smoothly, and he’ll be at work in 45 mins. More often, the underground traffic jam gnarls, and his overcrowded carriage will be filled with grouchy commuters, sardined shoulder-to-shoulder, sweaty and cramped, for almost an hour-and-a-half.

The middle-aged women are always the worst. If you’re between them and an open seat, they have no qualms with elbow and shoulder-tackling you to get that seat. They’re sometimes even swearing and belligerent, with a rather frightening don’t-fuck-with-me scowl. It makes me worry about all the future of my female friends. Middle age, I suspect, is not kind to women.

This particular morning, I was running late. My friend kept me company. We had a few things to discuss and I was glad she was there. Sometimes the Tube is too quiet; I’m not the only one who likes to zone out. We hopped on at Woodside Park and swooshed downward, through Finchley, past Highgate, next stop Camden Town. We had talked and argued and laughed the whole time. We were in a good mood.

Like anybody else on the train, the man hadn’t caught my attention. It takes a lot to get me to notice you on the Tube. Usually, you have to be making some unnatural noise, maybe shouting, fiddling with your mobile, snoring maybe. The man was doing none of those.

He made a step toward us, an unusual movement. The train was not crowded, and it was a some way until the next stop. It was a measured, purposeful move. My head instinctively turned away from my friend and looked in his direction. There was nothing remarkable about him. Mid-thirties, light brown hair, slightly balding, wearing a brown trenchcoat, a pressed white shirt and tan tie. He was holding an umbrella, which tapped along the carriage’s floor, like it was a cane. Not a walking stick cane, mind you; he held it like a prop in a silent movie, tap tap tap, as if he were about to toss it into the air and break into song. But he wasn’t smiling, and he certainly wasn’t about to start dancing.

He took another step toward me and made eye contact. You’re not supposed to make eye contact on the Tube. Just one of those things.

As he came close, I noticed he was taller than I thought he was. But, honestly, that was pretty much it. He looked like every other guy on the train, a nondescript nothing, just more background fuzz. He kept coming toward us, focusing on me. It appeared he needed something, likely directions. I’ve been riding the Tube for more than a decade and take a good deal of pride in my mastery of the elaborate calibration of the London Underground system, so I’m probably a good guy to ask.

He stopped over us, a little too close. His eyes narrowed, his lips pursed, and he spoke.

“I want to talk to you about the law. What you’re doing is criminal. You should be arrested. You should know that I will be contacting the proper authorities.” He then shifted slightly to his right and lurked backwards slowly, almost floating, his eyes locked on us, his disgust and fury palpable. He stopped about five feet away, but his glare did not waver.

For a moment that lasted longer than I would have liked it to, I did a little internal inventory. Had I engaged in any criminal activities recently? Was I engaging in any of them now? I looked at my friend, whose look of confusion — not shock, legitimate confusion — presumably mirrored my own. I could tell she was doing her own inventory. She realised about the same time I did that, no, as far as we knew, we were not doing anything illegal.

We were silent for about 10 seconds. Then she spoke, in a whisper: “He’s still looking at us.”

And his umbrella was tapping… slowly.

Not that I’d ever been faced with a situation like this before, but it seemed like the wise thing to do was to carry on as if nothing had happened. I found myself chuckling, as if she had just said something funny, or as if a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time had just played a silly joke on us, ha ha, gotcha. I didn’t dare look over at the man. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I could tell he was still staring.

We began to quietly try to make some sense of what had just happened. She pointed out, with a bit of alarm, that this well-dressed man didn’t appear to be joking at all. I tried to minimise the situation, make her feel more comfortable, let her know she was safe with me. “He’s clearly a nutjob, obviously,” I said. I’m not sure that helped. Either of us.

I was getting off at King’s Cross, but her stop was Camden Town, the next one. We needed to formulate a plan. She suggested we both get off at Camden, and I could catch the next train, but even in my shock, that wasn’t feasible for me. I was running late already. I told her to go ahead and get off like she always would, and if he made a movement to exit the train, I’d follow. As if in a vice, his head remained stationary, fixed on us.

Her stop arrived. I said goodbye, with an eye on the man. He did not budge. She escaped unharmed. I theatrically took out a book I’ve been reading and pretended to study it intently. Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Off to King’s Cross. The umbrella continued to tap.

I had a plan of my own. I was carrying the rucksack I take with me everywhere, full of random notebooks and work stuff, and I stealthily unzipped the pouch where I would ordinarily store the book. The scheme: Make it look like I was staying on the train, then, at the last possibly second, throw the book in there and bolt through the exit doors. I’m a London Underground veteran. I knew exactly how long those doors were open.

The train stopped. Commuters filed out. The man did not budge. 3… 2… 1… now. With a flash, I dashed through the doors, onto the escalators. Halfway up, I got stuck behind two chattering students. I twisted my neck just enough to glance behind me. There were four people looking annoyed by the delay up the moving stairs… and then him. He was looking downward now, but, as if sensing the movement, his head snapped up.

Quickly now. I passed the students on the wrong side and whisked up the rest of the stairs around the corner. There is a Costa on the international station concourse and it was a bit crowded. I ducked in and feigned an intense interest in the dairy section. I idled there for about 15 seconds and turned around.

The man was gone. I loitered a bit, then ordered a coffee and left. Looking a bit suspicious, hunched over, paranoid, I shuffled back to escalators to get on the Met Line. My mobile rang.

It was my friend. “Oh, God, you’re OK. What the hell was that all about?”

I had no idea, I have no idea, but I can assure you: the next time I have to commute to work, I’ll be leaving on time, from now on.


Game on!

There was chaos at the small flat just off the corner of Brighton Road and Lansdowne Road in Surrey the other night, and the people causing the ruckus were lucky nobody called the police.

If you stood outside the door, or in the hall of the floor below, or even out on the street, you could hear them. At first it seemed like they were laughing and having fun, talking shit to each other, being jestingly competitive. But then it escalated. The couple’s voices started rising. Then they were screaming. You heard stuff being thrown across the room. You heard the dog howling for quiet. The floor shook as they jumped up and down.

It all ended with a loud, violent “MotherFUCKER!” and a piercing wail of “You know what? Fuck this stupid game! I’m sick of it!” Then another loud bang. There was no weeping, not yet anyway, but the pain was evident. This couple was ruthless, vile, twisted. Whatever mess they were in, they were in it deep.

Mercifully, the neighbour decided she couldn’t take this anymore, not when it was already after midnight, no way. She walked across the hall and rang the doorbell, nervous that she was about to become a witness to some gruesome bloodbath, but still undeniably (and understandably) irritated. Someone had to say something. People were trying to sleep, you know.

My mate Richard opened the door. “Oh, shit, ma’am, I’m so sorry,” he said in his best oh-so-polite voice. “We were just playing a game in here, and it was a really close game, and we got a little carried away. I’m sorry, sorry. Won’t happen again.” I was glad he answered the door (upon hearing the doorbell, I immediately hid under the bed); I was still too fired up to carry on a normal conversation, particularly one in which I needed to look remorseful.

He closed the door, I crawled out from under the bed and we met at the sofa. “Shit, we were kind of loud, eh?” I said.

“Yep.”

“Maybe we should try to keep it down?”

“Might be a good idea.”

“Well, I don’t care how good he is, it’s just … there’s no way Messi should be getting four straight goals with Vidic right in his face. No fucking way!”

“What can I say? Leo’s the man!”

And then we sat back down, took the PlayStation off pause and proceeded to have Richard’s Barcelona team wipe the floor with my Manchester United Red Devils. Then we made a note of the score, and played again. Quieter this time.

Readers, you shall be the first to whom I admit it: I am a recovering video game addict, specifically a recovering EA Sports FIFA addict. I have successfully and steadfastly resisted buying a PlayStation, X-Box, Wii or anything like that and I’m quite proud of myself. I have even weaned myself off pretty much all the various video games on which I wasted so much of my youth. But when I visit any friend who has FIFA, it can still be a real problem. I try to drink, talk, read, write, ponder, mull, pontificate, masticate, abdicate, but I always end up in front of the TV with the damn game machine on.

It’s all Richard’s fault. We used to be neighbours when I lived in Surrey and we initially bonded over our support for Manchester United, in real life and on the PlayStation. Of course, back then we lived about 10 feet away from each other, as opposed to over 10 miles now. So it was out of control. We spent almost every waking moment when we were home at the same time, and there wasn’t a live game on that we could watch down at the pub, with the damn PlayStation on. We even spent many Saturday nights just sitting there, listening to music and playing until 3 a.m. We were lucky enough to never be interrupted by girls calling.

I’d always been inclined to this kind of addiction. My parents wanted their son to have a well-rounded growing-up experience, so they held off buying me a Nintendo. This just meant I would find kids in the neighbourhood, usually younger and more easily pushed around, who had one, and I’d commandeer it to play Pac Man, Frogger or Metroid… or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Later on, I spent a lot of time after school, and a lot of my allowance, in video game arcades, playing all manner of shoot-‘em-up, martial arts and car racing games. In the past, I have also have been taken in by trivia games, ranging from the high-tech (those bars that have those interactive games where you compete against fellow drunks) to the just plain nerdy (those insert-a-quarter contraptions you find next to the dart board at hole-in-the-wall dives).

In fact, it’s kind of funny how the games and my drinking went hand-in-hand. Last week, my mate Matt and I decided to grab a drink and get caught up on matters. We ended up at this sports bar, which, lo and behold, was running a World-Cup style PlayStation FIFA tournament where you could battle it out with fellow patrons over vodka and tonics. We sat there for about three hours, drinking and playing, before being eliminated in the second round. All the while, the sun shined vibrantly outside.

Rich and I, as you’ve probably gathered, can be intensely competitive in our showdowns. In fact, to be entirely honest, I’m quite likely to be heading off to Surrey next weekend to fire it up again. And the trash-talking shall ensue: “Oooh! Look at that shot, bitch! You like that? Do you? You want some more? Yeah, take that, I’ll give you some more! Who’s my little bitch now?”

I’m sure there’s no way anyone overhearing us in the hall would draw any wrong conclusions.


Parents rule!

My parents celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary just before Christmas. Now, obviously, that’s a figure that blows me away. 41 years. Ignoring that I haven’t been on earth that long, and ignoring that I’ve never even been married, just simply let that roll through your brain for a while. 41 years! My parents were married during Watergate, the Thatcher years, and during many more momentous times.. And yet when I see them together today, they’re the same. Mum’s making fun of Dad, he endures the good-natured ribbing with a shake of his head and a grin, and at times they’re just like a couple of kids so comfortable and enamoured with each other you feel like you stumbled across them on their honeymoon.

Now, you might think I’m going to be pithy in this column, a Pip-like Londoner full of cute little snide comments about my West Indian family, how they don’t get it, how they’re getting old and crotchety. But no. My parents are normal, sincere, hard-working, straightforward people who have set an example for me that often sends off internal alarms any time I feel I might be betraying it. In December 2010, I flew back to the Caribbean with my US-based sister to join the rest of our siblings to celebrate their 40th anniversary, and the whole trip served to remind me why I think my parents are so great.

Four examples that immediately come to mind, out of the thousands:

They recognize and enjoy that they have interesting, and sometimes weird, children. A couple years ago my mother was telling me about a conversation she had with someone. She was telling them about her son in London, and her daughter in America, and her other kids,  the paramedic, the teachers and journalists.  Her friend’s response was something along the lines of: “You have such interesting kids. You raised them well and they’re really living their lives.”

I could hear my mother positively beaming down the telephone line when she told me that story. She couldn’t have been more proud if her friend had told her we should run for President. My parents never blinked, not once, when I told them I wanted to be a journalist; they never panicked when I walked away from a steady job to help start up a new newspaper with no guarantee of success or income, and they never blanched (at least not openly) when I decided to move to London, following what must have seemed like a senseless flight of fancy. My parents have never really ever pressured me to do anything other than what I believed in, unless you count eating black eyed peas. Talking to many of my peers, pushed and pressured to become doctors and lawyers and accountants, I gather this is a rare, rare quality in parents. I’m not sure my father has yet worked out how to send a phone text message, but I often feel he has supported this mad dash of mine since before I even knew it was what I wanted.

They’re really just mother lions. As a kid growing up, I could always count on a clip behind the ear from a giant paw when I stepped out of line (which was often!), but if you really want to see my parents’ fangs and claws, just mess with one of their children!

The night before I left, we went out for dinner. A friend of mine showed up who, coincidentally, happened to know an ex-girlfriend with whom I’d not had a very amicable split. This fact was brought up to them, and they, simultaneously, squished their faces as if they’d just stepped in dog manure. “It’s a good thing I never saw her afterwards,” my mum said, “because I would have had a few choice words for her.” To this day, the mere mention of her name draws their ire, far more than it does mine. I don’t even think about it much anymore (really), but they never forgot how much that break-up gutted me, and they likely never will.

They never fail to tell me how much they care, but don’t embarrass me by actually saying it. I don’t think we are a hugely lovey-dovey, touchy-feely family, and I wouldn’t want us to be. I know my parents love me, and vice versa, so we don’t need to go on and on about it. They always pick the right times to show it.

On my surprise trip for their 40th anniversary, heavy snow in London had forced all the major airports to close. They were still closed a few days before my return to London (I was flying back before Christmas), and I was desperately hoping that I might get stuck out in the Caribbean for another week. I could tell my parents were secretly hoping the same and my mum looked quite crestfallen when we realised that flights had resumed just the day before I was due to leave. I was quite gutted myself.

My friends can’t believe they’re as old as they are … and they’re not even that old. My parents married young and they both still take care of themselves (and each other). Unlike me, my dad has all his hair and I probably have as many or even more grey ones than he does (I am SO thankful for L’Oreal MenExpert!) Dad still occasionally gets mistaken for an older brother and Mum has a face at least 10 years younger than she really is. My parents are not decrepit old people; it’s like they insist on remaining as young as possible, and by doing so, they keep me young too.

I am getting to the age now where some of my friends have lost their parents. It makes me so sad, just to think about it. They’ve done their best to fill that cavernous gap, and they haven’t done it the way I suspect I would – depressed months and years of aimless wandering. How? I can’t even begin to imagine. I would be so lost without both my parents in my life. I know that’s dopey, and certainly not very hip. But I love my parents, and simply the privilege of knowing them, let alone being able to call them my parents, is my boundless good fortune, and it’s one I will never take for granted.

Happy anniversary, guys. May you have 41 more. Please.


New Year’s Resolution

I am known by some of my friends, among other things, as a guy who places far too much importance on New Year’s Eve. It has always been one of my favourite days of the year, one on which my natural inclinations toward drippy nostalgia are not only rewarded, but also expected.

On what other day are you guaranteed, no matter what, to remember what you were doing exactly one year ago? Christmas, maybe. But you often do the same things on that day every year, usually spending time with family and gossiping about that uncle who’s been married four times.

By contrast, New Year’s Eve is a social animal, and your plans change every year. Since there is no real tradition around New Year’s Eve, other than that you’re supposed to do something, it’s a new experience every time.

That we make New Year’s resolutions is one of the most charming traits human beings have. For no other reason than our dogged earnestness and naiveté, we actually believe that we get a new start. We believe that somehow — this time, this year — things are going to be different. They never are, of course, but for one night, we believe. That’s the beauty of New Year’s; it’s not a clean slate, exactly, but it’s close enough for us.

I hear people complain about New Year’s Eve, that it’s always made into a big event that ultimately disappoints, that they feel pressured to have some kind of momentously fun time. These people are sad, really, incredible dullards and whiners. Pressured to have fun? Hey, I’ll take that kind of pressure every time, no problem. I wish I was pressured to have fun every day, rather than pressured to pay the bills, pressured to hold on to my job, pressured to keep my head above water.

If you can’t relax and have fun on New Year’s Eve, well, you’ve got more problems than this blog can solve, so there is no hope for you here.

Anyway, I had this feeling that New Year’s Eve 2011 was going to be a great one. I was hoping that it would somehow involve a particular lovely lady and was already working out in my mind how the night in Camden would turn out. I figured if craziness was going to ensue, there would be no more likely place than there and the stimuli would likely be so much that either I’d have enough material for four books and an opera, or my head would just explode as my body burst into flames. Either way, it would be quite a story.

As it turned out, my mate Matt, the first person I had asked to come along, was the only one to accept. So much for my designs on the lovely lady!

Then two things happened: First, I went to America for Christmas and spent way too much money (things are so much more cheaper there, you see). This made my New Year’s planning financially inconvenient — or, to use one friend’s more efficient terminology, “fucking crazy” — and somewhat irresponsible. Still, that wasn’t enough to stop me.

What was enough to stop me was Matt. I won’t get into too much detail about Matt, since he always gets mad at me when I bring him up in my blog, but let’s just say he’s kind of, well, a paranoid recluse with tendencies toward mania (that shouldn’t offend him).

He called earlier in the week and shared his growing feeling that something horrible was going to happen in London on New Year’s Eve. Namely, “Someone’s going to release nerve gas or something. We’re all going to die.” (Cast no aspersions and draw no conclusions on Matt here, but I’d like make an observation: Anybody else notice the amount of alarm someone has over things like these is directly proportional to the amount of weed they smoke? Just a thought.)

Matt said he didn’t want to go. I attempted to talk him into it — I mean, it was just a few days before New Year’s Eve, and time was a-wastin’ — but he wouldn’t cave, so eventually, I did. I thanked him for his persistence in making me believe he was going to go and, with a sigh, began to fucking freak out about what I was going to do on the night.

I considered just going down to the Embankment to watch the incredible waste of taxpayers’ money on the release of tons of fireworks (and possibly nerve gas) that could only serve to remind London’s homeless why they’re so bloody poor. But no, I was bound and determined to have a good time, and that wasn’t good enough.

So I called Kate. My friendship with Kate is one I haven’t written much about here, since it’s a fairly recent development, pretty complicated and, well, she doesn’t want me to write about her. Kate is a nurse I first met at my birthday party just over a year ago. (I first wrote about her in Happy Birthday To Me) She’s a wonderful person, kind-hearted and loving toward her fellow human beings — I’m curious why she hangs out with me. She was going to be working until 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, but we nevertheless made plans to meet up after her shift and head to the bash in Camden, for which I now had an extra ticket.

It is a matter of great poetic irony — or at least something that kinda sucked — that David, Mr. New Year’s Eve, wouldn’t even start his celebration of the New Year until 11 p.m. But those were the circumstances, and I had to roll with them.

I had a few early drinks at a neighbour’s, then set off towards the city. The goal was to find a pub, quietly have a couple of drinks by myself, then head over to the hospital. We simply had to get to the party by midnight because I’d be damned if I was going to ring in the New Year while stuck on the Tube.

The first three bars I attempted to duck into all had expensive pre-planned celebrations going on, so I grumbled to myself as I walked away from the presumably riotous jubilation inside. Finally, in desperation, I stepped into a Walkabout that had free entry before 9 p.m. For those cultured people who don’t have Walkabouts in their cities, it’s a chain of Australian-themed saloons with little seating and minimal décor, where the floors are always sticky and breathing is often difficult. It was, to say the very least, not where I had anticipated spending New Year’s Eve, but at this point in the night, it would have to suffice.

I walked in — I always feel like I should say I “sauntered” in when I visit places like a Walkabout — and found immediately that, surprisingly enough, it was not nearly as packed as I’d expected. I guess they were on Down Under time, which meant the start of 2012 had already come and gone. But I won’t complain too much, since one of the girls behind the bar was very nice — she even gave me a free New Year’s party hat and blew a kiss at me when I left. And it was soon time to go, and fast. The night wasn’t what it could have been, but there was plenty of time left to salvage matters. I just had to hurry.

I flagged a cab — I was lucky to get the first one I waved at — and we sped off toward the hospital. 11:05 … 11:10 … look out there, drunk pedestrian … 11:15 … we’re here. I sprinted out the car door — at first forgetting to unbuckle my seat belt, causing a bit of unnecessary strain — and screamed toward the automatic doors at the hospital. I peeled through the hallway to the lifts, almost knocking a guy with a walker into the unrelenting path of an oncoming wheelchair, and pushed the up button about 35 times, bang, bang, bang, pounding my fist into the wall for it to reach the fucking first floor already, Christ. Ding. Push the button for the third floor, bang, bang, bang. Door closes, bang, bang, bang. Door opens. Third floor.

Scrambling, I feverishly asked the first nurse I saw if Kate was there, my eyes full of fire and determination. Thirty-five minutes to go.

“She’s down in room 235. You can go down there if you want.”

Not even pausing to thank her, I left skid marks as I flew past. I looked in the room, and there was Kate, talking to a patient’s daughter. She had a look of calm and empathy, as if the frickin’ year didn’t have just 30 minutes left in it, but the daughter was more distraught. I noticed tears in her eyes, and she released a choked-off “thank you” to Kate as she left the room. Kate had been as worried as I was about missing the clock turning midnight, but when she exited the room and noticed me, a symbol of her life away from the ill, she was as placid as could be.

“Oh, hi! Listen, I’ve got a couple more patients to check on, so just go ahead and wait at reception. I’ll be out in a sec.” She then walked down the hall, to room 237, or 243, or something, someone.

And just like that, my tension was gone. Making it to some silly bar for some silly song that no one understands the words to, it all seemed, well, it all seemed as stupid as it actually was.

The New Year is a big deal for most of us, who have the choice of heading to London for chaos, looking for wild orgies in Newcastle, or just having a quiet night at home. But for these people — our sick, our dying — spending New Year’s Eve in the neurological ward of a hospital, December 31, 2011 was just another night, a night you pray for resilience and search for any remaining strands of hope. The residents of room 235, or 237, or 243, didn’t have a disappointing New Year’s Eve; they had no chance at such luck. All they could do, with fluid draining into their bloodstream, as they breathed through a tube in their neck, was gather a small amount of family members to circle around a smelly bed in an antiseptic room and celebrate the fact that they even had this moment.

Only the healthy, the spoiled, the fortunate get to decide which fun place they’ll ring in the New Year at. Not here, not in room 235.

I know this would be a better story if we never made it out of the hospital, if I rang in 2012 by holding the hand of a crippled child and singing hymns. Well, sorry, but we eventually made it to Camden, with 10 minutes to spare. We counted down the last 10 seconds with some band called Stir, we all rocked to an unoriginal but still fun rock version of Auld Lang Syne, and I even had somebody to kiss. But if you ask me how my New Year’s Eve was, I’ll tell you it was the most fulfilling and most memorable one I’ve had in years.

Spent in a hospital, musing about room 235, thankful I had the freedom to celebrate at all, thankful I have friends and family to celebrate it with.

And I didn’t even have to avoid any nerve gas to do it.


Merry Christmas!

I was raised to the ideal of Christmas being a general sense of goodwill to all people. Christmas was meant to be merry, not a merry fuck you.

A season of generosity marked with presents and a general tolerance for the slightly drunken ramblings of family, and the rumblings of mountains of food getting demolished.

And it was good. Much like Diwali is good, or Tabish Svat is good, it was the sort of festival where you didn’t need to actually believe the foundational story to enjoy.

Then the cultural and religious/secular wars took off, and saying Merry Christmas is becoming a coded way of telling people to go fuck themselves. It seems that for many people, the phrase has come to represent an aggressive, mean-spirited version of Christian nationalism that asserts that it is defending a cultural value, while simultaneously raping it. I saw it first-hand yesterday, in a department store here in America where I’m spending the holidays, when a clerk wished a customer “Happy Holidays”. He responded with a belligerent “Merry Christmas” before launching into a tirade about people not wanting to acknowledge the birth of Christ.

It didn’t even occur to him that the clerk may not have been Christian or even religious, and that this was her compromise. Happy holidays, and various other formulae have been introduced as much for the sake of political correctness as for variety.

But I think more than one person would point out that the almost obligatory nature of Christmas is anything but – I mean, do we call someone a Grinch if they don’t particularly enjoy Eid? Do we have the three ghosts of past, present and future visiting grouchy old men who don’t like Passover in TV specials? Do we have major atheist comedians singing about how they really like Vesak, despite not buying into the Buddhist conception of enlightenment?

We massively favour Christmas, because at the heart of it all the meaning of it has morphed. For many, it is no longer so much about Christianity as it is a vision of a better humanity.

So say “Happy Holidays” if you will and I’ll happily accept it. But I can still say “Merry Christmas” with a smile, because for me there is no hidden agenda. I will not sully the greeting with the identity politics of politically incorrect copy pasting – which generally confuses xenophobic cowardice for courage.

Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers, with no obligation to repeat or agree with anything I say, because this is not the season for taking offence, but rather giving goodwill to all.


The art of receiving well

Christmas. My favourite and worst time of the year. I almost always end up tearing my hair out looking for the right gifts for people. But giving a gift is only half the exchange: receiving is equally important, and sometimes the very hardest part.

There is an art to receiving a gift, whatever form it may take — something tangible or simply an act of kindness or generosity. Emily Post, ancient doyenne of good manners, has dictated the etiquette: You will be gracious; you will be grateful; you will remember to say “thank you.”

But there is more to good receiving than rules. The art of receiving requires craft.

A good receiver not only expresses liking and gratitude, but can make the giver feel more thoughtful and good about themselves. Being a good receiver requires genuine caring — and sometimes, some acting ability. As you open a gift you must never let your expression stray from delighted surprise, or even hint, “Why the hell is she giving this to me?” or “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?”

The real test for a receiver is getting a “bad” or unwanted gift. That’s when you must turn your attention to the giver. “You are so thoughtful.” (Obviously the giver had some thoughts about this item, if only you could figure out what they were.) Or, “How nice of you to think of me.” (It is always nice that others think of us.) If the gift is handmade you can always appreciate “the time you must have spent.” (Even “bad” gifts made by hand represent an investment of time.)

But etiquette and strategy cover only a part of receiving a gift well. What about the deeper difficulty in receiving — really allowing yourself to be given to?

The big test is whether you can accept a gift without feeling that you have to give one back. This is hard for many people. I have a few friends for whom this is like a badge of independence. You offer to take them to a concert or to pay for dinner and their first response is to reach for their wallets: “What do I owe you?” Grrrrrrr!

But I too have been guilty of this in the past, especially at this time of year. For a while I used to keep a spare set of Christmas cards handy, just in case I received one from someone I hadn’t thought of. But that could be equally ungracious.

What if you allowed the giver to simply give?

There’s something to be said for allowing another person to be the sole giver. You honour them by receiving their gift, rather than evening the score by handing back a pretty package of some generic item that is intended only to make you feel less guilty over their generosity. Sometimes the nicest thing we can give someone is to let them be the thoughtful one.

Receiving well is actually a kind of generosity. This year I’ve decided that, when required, I will allow myself to be given to, and give the gift of receiving well.


Happy birthday to me

My birthday is next week. Sunday, December 4, to be exact. I wasn’t thinking of doing much, but I don’t want to end up like some of my friends who, unlike me, are reclusive sorts who emerge from their dank, squalid flats only to grab groceries, score weed and report for jury duty, and they aren’t really into their birthdays that much. You hang out with them one day, doing very little of consequence, and you find out a week later, by accident, that it was their birthday, and all you did to celebrate it was watch some shit on telly.

Honestly, I don’t understand these people. If you can’t celebrate your birthday, shit, what can you celebrate? On my birthday, I revel in my own self-indulgence. I organise and announce my own birthday party, preferably at a spacious bar with plenty of cheap drinks, invite any friend within a 100-mile radius and then kick back and enjoy a drunken evening with my closest associates. That’s what a birthday is supposed to be about – your most beloved cronies, gathered around a large table, talking shit and enjoying one another’s company.

This is a yearly ritual for me, inviting all my pals in my chosen area and begging them to come and chill out with me. Birthdays are our checkpoints, the times we can sit back and reflect on how much has changed in a year, discover whether we’ve moved forward, or backwards, or whether we were running on the spot for all those months.

It really only started with my 30th birthday, in Camden Town, London. It was a crazy time; my mate Ross organised it and we ended up in some bar or the other with Rowan, Sarah, Sergio, Joe and some others. Ross, bless him, even got me a birthday cake. I don’t remember much else of that evening, although from the photos, I must have had quite a time (there is one of me kissing a girl I don’t know who, I am told, was also celebrating her birthday that day). There were also text messages on my phone that I did not send… I think… including one to a girl I fancied at the time that went something like this:

Her (responding to a text from my phone): Are you drunk?

My phone: Yes! So come and take advantage!

Her: OK. Where are you?

No reply.

Bastards!

And so it went from year to year, the only blip being a couple years ago when I was under strict doctor’s orders to take it easy. Still, I insisted on travelling some distance to attend an office Christmas dinner at which everyone surprised me with a drunken rendition of Happy Birthday and a cake.

Last year, it was surreal. I was in Covent Garden, with just a handful of buddies, when I was introduced to this almost preternaturally attractive girl who won my heart by buying me shots all evening. At the end of the night, she came over to me, gave me a hug, told me it was great to meet me, then took my right hand and put it on her left breast. I didn’t see her again until about a month ago, when I learned she was a nurse named Kate that I had quite a connection with, and we sat down over a couple drinks, and she denied the whole birthday thing, but I knew she was full of shit and I liked her anyway.

And that leads us to this one. Another year gone, and I will start this birthday, as always, uninspired, unmotivated, undisciplined, unworthy… But then I will find myself at a bar somewhere, having scrounged together the few real friends I have in London willing to come out on a Saturday night. And I will drink and smile and laugh, and all will be well. My birthday always reminds me how lucky I am to have people who care about me, a decent job that pays the bills, a roof over my head, and good health.

I will not allow myself to be one of those birthday people, the ones who get all freaked out about their age, ohmigod I’m almost 40, I’m not married, I haven’t achieved this or that, I’m wasting everyone’s time, boo fucking hoo. That will not be me. I will drink and I will smile and I will laugh, and all will be well, oh yes, it sure as shit better be. I will not wallow, become depressed, wonder how in the world I ended up here, ended up doing this, ended up acting this way, ended up thinking this.

True, I don’t always feel like I have it all together. Of course, maybe no one ever really does. But next week is my birthday and goddammit it, I’m going to celebrate, even if there really isn’t anything special to celebrate. I am not going to let anything get in the way of a drunken birthday. If I’m going to earn any kind of small victory, it will be that.

Happy birthday to me…


Snapshots of a life

What’s heaven like? I know what I want heaven to be. I want heaven to be The Truman Show of my life. Somehow, some way, God had little invisible cameramen following every moment of my life, from birth, and he sat down with his little angel Martin Scorcese and edited the thing together into a real-time, neatly packaged narrative.

That’s what I want. I want to relive my life, except as an observer. I want to see it all like a movie: the great moments, the humiliating ones, the banal day-to-day drudgery. I want to laugh at how silly my friend John looked at 14, how scared my dog was at four weeks old, what exactly that first kiss was like. I want to relive it all. It would be like having a permanent mirror on my bedroom ceiling. (Though I think I may ask Morgan Freeman to edit out bits like the sleeping and masturbation. I think he’d do that for me. He is, after all, God, and he is wise and kind.)

It just all seems so important. I want to make certain I don’t forget any of it.

Oh, and the lessons I would learn! What did I learn from this point to the next one? Did this tragedy make me a wiser person? Did I really tell her I was going to call her that night, or was she right to be mad? Just who was that giving me bunny ears in that class photo anyway? Did my family do anything traumatic to me as a child that I’ve repressed? Just where in the world did I get that haircut? Did I ever improve after my initial, clumsy attempts at cunnilingus? And, at last, I can find out: Do these jeans make my arse look big?

Unfortunately, I have no idea if the afterlife is like this. As far as I know, it’s utter blackness, or, even worse, a television that only plays Channel Five. But my general principle stands: I want to remember it all. I want to see a snapshot of a friend of mine from, say, 10 years ago, remark on how they’ve changed, or how they’re the same clown they were when they peed their pants watching Friday the 13th when we were kids.

So I take pictures. Oh, do I take a lot of pictures. You know that guy who, when you’re out drinking some night, suddenly pops up out of nowhere and flashes a camera in your face? I’m that guy. Before I went digital, I used to go through film like cups of coffee. I was perpetually buying film, waiting for it to be developed, taking pictures, add add add, more more more. I want it all chronicled. I must remember.

I started putting together my first scrapbook/photo album the day after I graduated from college. Since then, I have filled nine huge, fat ones. It’s all there. This is as close to the Jehovah-directed video I’m waiting for as I’m going to get.

It is only special pictures that are included in my albums. They have to remind me of a moment, a night, an experience, something. I have to be able to legitimately describe the circumstances behind a photo in four-to-five sentences; otherwise, it’s in the discard pile.

Well, the other evening, I sat around, alone and forlorn (it was a Tuesday, after all). It was a total country-music day: mah girl left me, mah boss on mah case, mah dawg done died. I was at home, trying to find the right music to fit my mood, when I looked in the corner, and saw my stack of old photo albums. I started flipping through the first one, with the posed, “professionally”-taken shots of an ex-girlfriend and me. And the thought occurred to me… what if I counted every single photo of every single person in my albums – physical, digital, or those ubiquitous Facebook ones – and tallied them? Would I learn anything? Would I come to any kind of realisation about my life, how I got here, where I’m going… stuff like that?

And so I started making a list. Everyone who appears in my albums… they’re all there. This list is my life in outline form. It was an irresistible project.

Maniacally, I started putting it together over about half a bottle of Angostura 1824 rum and a Nirvana playlist. Did I learn anything? No. But I did get drunk, and it was endless fun. I highly suggest you try it.

I even set up some ground rules.

First and last names. A requirement. If I couldn’t remember both names of a person in a photo within a pre-determined 15-minute period, they weren’t included. I was not allowed to call a friend and ask. So my apologies in advance to Melanie Somethingorother, that one guy who lived down the hall in the Mona campus years, and that one chick, you know, the one with the big teeth, total horse face, dated Jeff, you remember her, right? Those guys are in the pictures, but not on the list.

Famous people. Totally included, as long as I was in the room with the celebrity when the pictures were taken or if I took the picture myself. It amuses me immensely that I have more pictures of David Beckham than the girl whom I took to my college graduation ball.

Maiden names: If I met the person before they were married, her maiden name is used, even if the majority of pictures are from after the name was changed. Essentially, I’m just using the name I know them as. (And for the record, ladies, keep your name. Guys suck. Your name is probably better anyway, unless it’s something ridiculous, like Pitzer or Fullalove.)

The fickle laws of chance and opportunity. This is hardly a ranking of how important people have been to me, in order. Circumstances dictate my photo output. In London, I took more photos than I did in New York. And remember, my first album didn’t begin until after college graduation. School and college friends get short-shrifted. On the other hand, if I went to your wedding, odds are good that your number is pumped up, even though I might not actually even like you all that much.

Prominence. You need not be the centre of a shot to have a photo counted. Even if you’re in the side of the frame, picking your nose, it’s a point for you. But we need to see your face; a foot that looks kind of like yours, except with less mould, doesn’t show up on the scorecard. Also, my list is not indicative of anything, and there won’t be descriptions of anyone on there. It’s just the names. Their relevance in my life is something I’ll keep to myself. To protect their privacy, you see.

Cleavage. Any shot with a woman showing cleavage was counted twice. OK, that’s not true… but how awesome is it that I have cleavage shots in my photo albums? I should make a special album just of those and keep it at my bedside.

This project works on two levels, if and when I finally complete it and publish the list on this blog. First, it allows me to see just how prominent some people have been in my album and let them know just how many photos of them are currently in my closet. Secondly, it will allow my friends to search their names on Google, realise I’ve included them, and then hunt me down and kill me.

Thank you for letting me do this.


My fight with Mike Tyson

We all have our demons. Some of us have been so hurt by past relationships that we can’t open ourselves up to other people anymore. Some have been stricken by family tragedy and have trouble seeing a reason for anything. Some of us can’t handle heights, some of us are mortified by snakes, some of us are freaked out by clowns. Whichever. There’s always something.

My demon lay dormant for over two decades, but he returned last week, unrelenting as ever.

My parents, different, I suspect, than many today, never had a problem with their children watching too much television. We were always encouraged to go out and play, sports, hide-and-seek, hell, even doctor, anything to get us out of the house and away from the brain rot of popular entertainment. In the long run, this might have been beneficial for me, but at the time, it made me the lamest kid in the neighbourhood. Not only did I have no idea what was happening on any of the hot cartoons, but I was also so nerdy that (get this) I didn’t even have a Nintendo. That’s right; while the other kids were mastering Pac Man, Frogger, Excitebike and Metroid, I was plopped in the driveway with my siblings with a football, a book and an admonition to “stay outside and enjoy the fresh air.”

I’m not sure these restrictions had the desired effect. Rather than roll in the weeds and become one with nature, I instead found friends who had cooler parents, and I’d play their Nintendo. Poor bastards. I’d show up at their door, they’d sigh, let me in and hand me the controller. Occasionally, we’d find a two-player game like Contra or Tecmo Bowl, but usually, I had only one game in mind, a game that could only be played solo.

I had an obsession, recklessly unhealthy, with Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. It was all I wanted to play and all I wanted to think about. I’ll never forget the first time. I was visiting my cousin Sheldon, and he told me about this awesome new game. “At the end, you get to fight Mike Tyson. But I can’t get that far.” He handed me the controller and I battled Glass Joe, notoriously the worst video boxer since the advent of sound. In a three-round slobber-knocker, I defeated him with a TKO at 2:54, and I was hooked. I wanted Tyson, and I would do whatever it took to take him out. I am certain that there are friends’ parents, if I suddenly became a serial killer and they were interviewed as a “concerned neighbour,” would have little more to say than, “He was a quiet sort. All I remember is him playing Nintendo. That boxing game. Actually, it did seem like he was screaming a lot at the television. Had violent outbursts.”

Kids today must wonder about society’s fascination with Mike Tyson. He’s now (justifiably) considered bit of a caricature, and before that, a monster who bit people in the ring and threatened to eat other boxers’ children. He was feared in the same way we fear the wild-eyed, unshaven man screaming at nobody in the street. He was unpredictable, unhinged and pathetic, a circus sideshow, a car wreck we couldn’t take our eyes off. He was a disintegrated man.

But it’s important to remember, in the late ’80s, when Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, a 250-pound, tightly wound, ready-to-snap mound of endless muscle, no man was considered more indestructible than Kid Dynamite. Grown men who were paid millions of dollars to punch other men in the face, men nearly a foot taller and a decade older than Tyson, would cower at the mere mention of his name. Michael Spinks, considered one of the best boxers in the world at the time, faced Tyson in a match hyped as an impending classic. But when the bell rang, you could see Spinks’ legs quivering from outer space. Ninety seconds later, Spinks was flat on his back, spasming, humiliated, and Tyson was forever a chiseled god, the physical incarnation of the power of intimidation. He was 21 years old, and he was the baddest man who ever lived.

And he was mine. I worked myself up through the ranks, compiling the Minor, Major and World Titles with nary a second thought. My eyes never wavered. Tyson was toast. After easily dispatching the pectoral-gyrating Super Macho Man, I faced Tyson for the first time. Now, any of you familiar with the game (anyone?) will know that in the first 90 seconds of a match with Iron Mike, any punch he hits you with will knock you down. It took 30 seconds for me to be floored three times. But I practiced and practiced, even discovering the code you can plug in to skip all other fighter and battle Tyson directly. I eventually figured out how to avoid all those 90-second punches, and how to knock him down, and when to dodge, and when to sneak in a quick uppercut. But I couldn’t beat him. I would be far ahead on points, needing only to survive the third round. I would always choke. Somehow, someway, I would blow it, and he’d beat me, and he’d flex his deltoid and wink at me. I hated that fucker. Nothing I tried worked. All my friends, they could take him. Some could even knock him out. Not me. He haunted my dreams. I played so much I started to think my father looked a little like Piston Honda. But when it came to Tyson, I was always pushing that rock up the hill.

Then came February 10, 1990, in Tokyo, against Buster Douglas. My father and I were watching an English football game that night and would occasionally flip channels to make sure we didn’t miss the inevitable Tyson knockout. Every time we flipped back, however, we were amazed to find the fight was still going. In fact, Tyson appeared to be, what?, losing. No matter: He’ll find that one punch and he’ll drop this chump. And he did, almost. He flattened Douglas with a quick uppercut, but the big dude didn’t stay down. And then, in the 10th round, the unthinkable happened, and Tyson went down, and he didn’t get back up, and someone had solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, slaughtered Jabba the Hut’s underground pet, penetrated the impenetrable fortress.

That night, I stayed up late and fought Tyson. I beat him on points. But I played him again the next day, and he destroyed me as he always had before. As the mysteries of pubic hair began to reveal their true purpose, my enthusiasm for the game wavered, and eventually I gave away my Nintendo to a younger cousin and went to college, and grownup land, and all that fucked-up shit that never allows you to win on points. And I never beat Tyson again.

Then, the other night: a couple mates and I were helping a friend clear out his garage and lo and behold, there sitting on a shelf was that parental replacement, the Nintendo. And sitting next to it, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. I was helpless against its charms. Work had to stop. I grabbed the cartridge, blowing the dust off it started up against Glass Joe. It was amazing how quickly it all came back to me. I remembered how to beat each guy. I withstood Bald Bull’s charge, Glass Tiger’s weird magic circle thing, Mr. Sandman’s devastating super uppercut. I beat everyone, including Super Macho Man, setting up a rematch that was years in the making.

And I got scared. I told my friends the whole story, about how I always choked against Iron Mike, how much pain and misery and self-doubt this stupid game, and that stupid guy, had caused me. One of the guys, the one who owned the Nintendo, scoffed, saying that beating Tyson was second nature to him at this point. I begged him to take over for me. I can’t stand the disappointment. I can’t come this far, this many years removed, just to lose again. You can beat him. I want to see him beat. I can’t handle another loss.

Another mate spoke up: “For Christ’s sake, David… If you keep thinking you’re a loser, you’ll always be one. You’ve earned this match. You’re good at this. You can beat him. Don’t walk away now because you’re afraid to lose. You can’t live life trying not to lose. You have to play to win. Now go beat him.”

And I was fired up. My revenge against Tyson was delayed, it would not be denied. I grabbed the controller out of his hand, to the cheers of the crowd. I pressed start, and we were off. I avoided the first 90 seconds of punches and went on the attack. The first round ended with neither of us being knocked down. I had his power low, however, and I took him down early in the second. He got up and peppered me with some nasty jabs, and I was down. But Little Mac popped back up, and we were into the third round. Down he went again. I now had enough points (6,000, if memory serves me correctly) to win, if only I could survive. The room was silent. One minute to go. One poorly timed jab. Down I went. I did not get back up. With six seconds left, Iron Mike flexed his muscle and winked at me.

I looked at my friend who had delivered the rousing speech. I eyed him closely.

“I think I’ve proven my point.” I then flipped him the controller and went back to the garage, more certain than ever that playing not to lose in life is the safest, most self-preserving option I’ve come up with so far.


Rafat is gone…

My friend Rafat is gone. Like, forever. He’s not dead, thank God, but for all intents and purposes, in my world, he might as well be.

I knew Rafat for several years. He’d moved into a flat near me in Surrey and we often paused to chat when we crossed paths, which was often. When you live across the hall from someone and see them every day, when they’re as much a part of the scenery as everything else, you don’t think of them nearly as often as you should. These people are just simply there, reliable, like the postman who shows up every morning, every day, friendly wave, off we go, best to you.

Rafat and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Libya, which, I learned, is nothing at all like London. Eventually he moved out of the Surrey flat, but still kept in touch, and we’d occasionally meet up in London. A few months ago, when shit had just started to really go down back home, I ran into him at a coffee shop near his workplace; he didn’t say much — just sat there, looking pale as ever. There had been some sort of bombing, or an attack, or something, and his uncle was unaccounted for. He was instant-messaging with family over there, and everyone was in a panic. I said I hoped it all turned out well, then made some lame comment, intended to lighten the moment. I’m not sure if he got the joke. I’m not even sure there was one.

Rafat often struggled with the clash of his upbringing and his life in the UK. On one hand, his parents were devout Muslims who frowned on alcohol or sex or, you know, anything fun. On the other hand, he had a Match.com personal ad and a friend who was constantly trying to persuade him to down tequila shots. Rafat gradually became a part of my circle of friends. He even warmed to a nickname we gave him, “Rartfat,” just because we thought it sounded funny. Which it does.

He came to a party one of my mates hosted once. He just lived down the street, so, unlike everyone else, he had a brief, easy jaunt home. Using this information, I talked him into taking his first swig of hard liquor. To document the occasion, I commandeered my friend Elena’s camera. On three … one … two … let’s go Rafat … and pound! He looked like someone had just stuck a branding iron in his anus. The photo is classic. I don’t know where it is now. I’d love to have it.

He didn’t like beer, so I had him drinking gin and tonics. He was also in charge of the digital camera, and most of the shots of people drunkenly wailing during karaoke were taken by him. He’s not in any of those pictures. Most are, not surprisingly, out of focus anyway. He had a great time that night.

He was here on a work visa, sponsored by his company. This posed a problem. If the business I worked for ever went under, I would just have to go find another job and make sure I could pay my rent. But Rafat, he’d have to go back to Libya. He had been in the UK too long; he was anti-Ghaddafi and wanted him gone, but still didn’t seem very hopeful for Libya’s future under any new regime, so he had little desire to go back there. He knew what it could be like.

Bad news came in. His company was having money troubles. Rafat started looking pale again. He had been dating this girl — not a nice girl, if you ask me. He brought up the notion of possibly getting married so he could stay in the country, in case anything went down. Rafat was a little too public with this notion, in my opinion; soon everyone at his workplace knew about it. I told him to shush a little; he asked me to be the best man, if it went down. He liked this girl anyway; he could make it mutually beneficial.

A turn for the worse where he worked. A few people left their jobs. Staff dwindled. People suddenly found themselves doing the jobs of two or three, and it was stressful and tiring and, occasionally, demeaning. Rafat had a falling-out with the girl, and soon it became evident that not only would they not be marrying, they wouldn’t be hanging out much at all. He had a run-in with his roommate that made his home a place he tried to avoid whenever possible. The walls started closing in.

Rafat stopped talking much. I would ask him how he was doing, how things were at work and back home, and he’d put his head down and shake it, slowly, and say, “Not good, man, not good.” He would go into no more detail. The spiral had begun.

Then his company’s business started to pick up. I took this as good news for Rafat. But the die was already cast with him. He was already lost. He would go to work later and later, and leave later and later. He grew haggard and, when he spoke at all, complained of an inability to sleep. I wish I could have been there more for him. But I had my own stuff going on. We always have our own stuff going on. There is only so much that we can do.

It happened one Friday – September 30 to be exact. According to one of his colleagues, a mutual friend, they were all sitting around, doing their work. Rafat hadn’t spoken all morning. Then he stood up, walked into the boss’ office, and about 10 minutes later, they left in the lift. Our friend received a call about an hour later from the boss, saying Rafat wouldn’t be back in today, could you pick up his work? He said fine, and asked if everything was OK. His boss, hardly one of his better out-of-work pals, sighed and said, “We’ll see. I hope so.”

I left three messages for Rafat over the weekend, none of which were returned until a week later. By then, his office had already made up its own rumours. He told me he was medicated, so bear with him. He then said he was leaving for Libya in a week. I did not press him for details; the battles he was fighting clearly were ongoing.

The night before he left, I dropped by his London flat. We talked for an hour. Then I had to go home and he had lots to do before he hopped on that plane.

“Thank you, David. You have been a good friend.” I shook his hand, and shit, why not, hugged him. “You take care of yourself, Rafat. You’ll be missed. You be safe.”

He said thanks. There was nothing more to be said, really. His flight left the next day. A week later came the news of Ghaddafi’s death and Libya’s “liberation”.  I watched the news clips of London Libyans celebrating and thought of Rafat. He’s gone, and chances are I’ll never see him again, but hey, what do you do? People come, people go, supporting characters, popping up in the side of the frame, maybe making an impact, maybe not. For his sake, I hope things turn out well in Libya. I do wish him the very best.

Man, I’ve got to find that picture!


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