Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Man’s Gotta Do...

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but (look at that, I got your attention!  What a great way to start a sentence.  The audience is promised something to pity or despise the speaker for.  It’s almost as good as, “I love so-and-so to death, but…” with that “but” promising some great gossip—but I digress) I sometimes cheer myself on by thinking, “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.”

The action I have to take, that warrants this silent self-encouragement, is never something really manly, like dragging a guy out of the pub (because he’s been mean to the barmaid or something) and giving him a good beat-down.  Usually it’s something that I simply don’t want to do.  This thing may require grit or steely resolve, or not; I guess the idea is that I’m trying to convince myself that by doing this thing, I’m manning up.  Manning up for a change, if you want to be a dick about it.

Tonight my wife didn’t feel like cooking, so I did.  If you think I’m going to complain about this, and say something silly about “women’s work,” think again.  That said, I do consider myself lucky that my wife does most of the cooking.  This is not such a routine that I can actually expect dinner on the table, per se.  Sometimes my wife makes dinner; sometimes she shows no sign of making dinner and then abruptly throws something together; sometimes she announces, “I’m not making dinner” and then—makes dinner.  Other times she says “I’m not making dinner” and means it.  Sometimes she doesn’t say anything, and I start a timer in my head and eventually either say something or start cooking.

Tonight I made my go-to quick combo:  grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.  These sandwiches are not actually grilled.  They’re fried.  If I were manning a grill—because that’s what you do, you man a grill, and if your wife offers to help you say, “Now you stand back from that grill, little lady, that’s man’s work”—that would be one thing, but a) nobody puts cheese sandwiches on a grill, and b) I don’t know how to work a grill, and c) I don’t even own a grill.  So these were fried sandwiches, which I guess is better than making a frittata but still nowhere near serving up charred meat that’s pink in the middle, and let me just say that even if I had a grill and manned it, I wouldn’t mess with all that stupid stuff about pressing your finger against the web of your thumb and thinking that has anything to do with whether meat is done.  Meat is done when the outside is no longer red, because when’s the last time you heard of a guy getting e. coli or tapeworms from a good piece of meat he bought from a butcher, a real butcher who wipes his bloody hands on his apron and has a Brooklyn accent?  But this is all just posturing because I don’t even own a grill.

So anyhow, I served the family some fried cheese sandwiches and soup, and then everybody scattered, and I wasn’t full, so I started making a second sandwich, and my wife, perhaps worried for my delicate physique (I’m just saying that, of course she’s not actually worried, as I’m very slender, certainly not the kind of broad-chested dude who has gravitas and can carry off a double-breasted suit, certainly nothing like Henry VIII) said, “You’re making a second sandwich?”  So I answered, “Yeah, sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” 

Immediately following this I considered issuing a caveat, something like “And sometimes a guy’s gotta do what a man oughtta do, if there were an actual man around.”  I wish I were the kind of man’s man who can say things like “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do” without issuing a caveat, but I’m just not.  I worry that my wife will start laughing, or will silently think to herself, “Dude thinks he’s a man?”  So I usually beat her to the punch with the caveat.

But there’s something so wimpy about this.  If real man’s behavior is questioned, he doesn’t deign to answer.  But of course nobody would question a real man’s behavior anyway.  That’s Walter Mitty territory.  When’s the last time a Bond girl asked Bond, “What are you doing?”  No, they’re about to be killed, and Bond is fiddling with his watch or his pen or something, but she never doubts him.

So, after telling my wife that eating a second sandwich is the kind of thing a man’s sometimes gotta do, I managed to stick the landing and not offer a caveat.  A small victory, but I couldn’t help but reflect that less than an hour earlier I’d said those same words, but to myself.  What is this, a mantra?

I was at the store.  Not a sporting goods store, not REI, not a purveyor, not a place that sells outdoor survival gear.  I was at Safeway.  I was buying groceries.  That is an activity that is not on the list of things that a man’s gotta do, not even sometimes.  I’d worked my way from one end of the store—produce & salad dressing—to the other end:  beer & meat.  Isn’t that great?  It’s like the store is organized into His & Hers. 

My love of the beer & meat section is tempered because every time I go to the store, it seems like the price of a six-pack has gone up another buck.  This cuts into my freedom, because I refuse to pay those prices.  I have to look at what’s on sale.

Mindy Kaling, the comedienne from “The Office,” writes about the differences between a man and a boy.  If she were differentiating between men and women she might discuss the matter of whether a male of any stripe should be reading her book, which talks a lot about shopping and how to be a good girlfriend.  I should really be reading Cormac McCarthy or something.  But presumably she wants both sexes to buy her book, so she only goes into boys vs. men.  She’s got a whole chapter on this.  She says (among other things) that when the shampoo is almost gone, a boy puts water in the bottle and shakes it up to get the last bit out, while a man just buys a new bottle of shampoo.  You know what?  I always put a little bit of water in the bottle and shake it up to get the last bit out.

So, is frugality the stuff of boys?  I don’t know.  I’ve always thought that timing the sales—having a hunch about when Rosarita refried beans will finally go on sale, or what the latest windfall discount from the Great Premium Jarred Spaghetti Sauce Price Wars will be—was kind of like playing the stock market, which has always seemed like a manly activity.  But in light of Mindy Kaling’s opinion, I suppose shopping sales is really more of a “Hints From Heloise” kind of thing.  I guess I should be ashamed.

In this case I was totally torn because four of my favorite beers were on sale, meaning they were discounted from Totally Scandalous Disgustingly Venal Daylight Robbery down to mere Ripoff, and I couldn’t decide which to get.  The beer I really wanted was Stone IPA, but even on sale it’s really, really expensive.  I think it was marked down to like $10 or something.  For a freakin’ six-pack!

So I told myself, “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do,” and bought all four brands of beer.  That’s pretty bold, innit?  Isn’t that what a man would do?  I mean, a boy is usually broke and digs through the sofa cushions for enough change to go buy Bud, right?  Well, I couldn’t exactly bask in this idea, because I couldn’t help wondering if the Stone IPA is just another macho affectation.  My wife has suggested as much.  She calls it “the Emperor’s New Beer.”  She has suggested that IPAs in general are just one big pissing contest.

You could probably win a pissing contest by drinking enough IPA, actually.  At least, so long as the basis of the contest is urination duration, which seems to me like the right one.  But of course duration is not what my wife meant by pissing contest.  She means that we males are forcing ourselves to drink something really bitter just to show how masculine we are.

Look, I honestly enjoy IPAs.  I really do.  No, I didn’t take to them right away, I’ll concede that they’re an acquired taste, but I do like many of them.  And if I were only pretending to like IPAs, of course I wouldn’t like one more than another, which I do.  And it’s not like I only drink an IPA when another guy is watching.  But now there’s a voice in my head that says “Thou doth protest too much!”  What kind of a wussy voice is that?  “Thou doth”?  Quoting Shakespeare?  Shut up, voice-in-my-head!  Who are you to second-guess my taste in beer, and/or my masculine dignity?

Well, the scary thing is, I’m starting to develop a taste for something far more bitter than an IPA.  Before a bike ride, I like to have NoDoz.  I crush the tablet with a meat tenderizing mallet (a man’s tool, which every time I use it reminds me that I should get a grill and learn how to barbecue), and dissolve the powder in water so it’ll kick in faster.  That caffeine-water makes a double or triple IPA taste like the sweetest nectar. 

And this caffeine-water is growing on me, its taste symbolizing the suffering I’m about to do on the bike.  It’s a pleasure similar to how, after a hard ride, my legs burn when I come down the stairs.  What I’m saying is, I guess I could probably develop a taste for anything.  Which could mean that my learned appreciation of IPAs actually is the affectation of somebody trying to be more manly than he really is.  As in: “I have to develop a taste for something; I’ll develop a taste for that bitter beer that only real men like!”

In truth, I don’t feel insecure about my masculinity.  This guy vs. man thing is more complicated, and may be based on that divide I felt as a kid, acknowledging that my dad was of a different generation than I, always on the higher tier.  My friends and brothers seem like guys to me, too.

There’s no single societal consensus about what a man even is.  I’m sure it’s not just somebody who wastes shampoo, wears cologne, and has a mortgage, which are Mindy’s criteria—but whatever manhood is, I’m not at all sure I’m there yet.  What’s it going to take?  Grey hair?  I hope not … then I’ll go from guy to old man without ever enjoying a proper manhood in between.

I asked my younger daughter, who is still of the age before tact, and so can always be counted on to give a brutally straight answer, “Would you say I’m a man?”  She thought about it.  “Not really.  You’re kind of just a big daddy guy.”  Fair enough.  My older daughter says, “Your behavior doesn’t always seem very adult.  But I’m glad—that would be boring.”

Is it time to just jettison this “Man’s gotta do” quote?  It is kind of antiquated, after all; most people associate it with John Wayne (and the 1939 movie “Stagecoach”) though it first appeared in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (click here).  But I kind of like the quote.  It reminds me to try to be a man, to live up to that (albeit vague) standard, which is a lot better than shamelessly embracing the arrested development that has become fashionable, like billionaire CEO Mark Zuckerberg with his hoodies and sneakers.

I first heard “man’s gotta do” from my brother, when he described a wild night of babysitting.  What made it wild was that the kids’ dad, Mr. K—, a miner, a real dyed-in-the-wool blue-collar guy who spoke in an irreverent snarl and always grinned at you with a hint of menace, like he was going to slap you upside the head because it’s what you deserved, decided to see if he was getting his money’s worth with the babysitter (i.e., my then twelve-year-old brother).  To Mr. K—, babysitting wasn’t about getting the kids to bed on time with their teeth brushed; it was about protecting them from intruders.

So when he and his wife got home, pretty late, he started hammering on the door and then burst it open and stormed into the room.  My brother, instead of running for cover, put up his dukes and assumed a prizefighter’s stance.  (This was during the ‘70s when people said things like “Put up your dukes!”)  Mr. K—, needless to say, was delighted.  “That’s what I wanna see!” he yelled.  “Somebody who’s not afraid to protect my kids!”  His wife said something less enthusiastic, probably along the lines of “I’m not sure that was actually the right reaction,” to which Mr. K— replied, “Hey, sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!”  So there it is:  Max was a man at age twelve.  And I’m still reaching for it.  Sweet.


Check out this postcard Max sent my daughter, which arrived the very day I finished this blog post:

In case you’re having trouble with the small print, here’s what it says: 
It’s a beautiful day.  In a minute I’m going to go get my hair trimmed.  After that, I’m going to go swimming.  This is not the kind of day I get to enjoy very often, but I worked very hard to make it happen.  That’s the thing about life.  In order to have time and space for yourself, you have got to do what needs to be done.  I have long said “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, when a man’s gotta do what it is a man does when he does what he’s gotta do.”  I believe this is true for everyone, even pets and children.

He might as well have added “and my brother” or “and your dad.”  You see?  My brother employs the caveat, too!

I phoned Max up and described the amazing coincidence.  Sure enough, the origin of his quotation was Mr. K— having quoted it.  Max still remembers that babysitting episode the same way he’d described it to me, all those years ago.  “It’s been a running joke ever since,” he said, “but usually one I keep to myself.”

Sunday, January 25, 2015

From Farting Liberally to Liberal Arts - The Flatulence Files

NOTE:   Needless to say, this post is chock-full of vulgar humor and coarse language.  It’s somewhere between PG-13 and R.  Also:  this post used to be called “Just A Bunch of Fart Jokes” but I’ve renamed it to (I hope) better capture the lofty literary realm I have striven to attain.


Has your humble blogger actually hit rock bottom?  Is this post like some Hail Mary to try to get somebody’s, anybody’s, attention?  Well, it’s true that the albertnet page view count has been very low lately.  And I admit, I’m pretty disappointed that my review of the 1966 art film Andrei Rublev hasn’t been a smash hit, despite its description of a nude bacchanal and its coinage of the highly useful and suggestive phrase “Marfa-butt.”  It seems the title alone scared readers away, and I refuse to let that happen again.

I’m not just acting on a hunch here.  I did some market research:  googling “andrei  rublev review” produced a paltry 52,700 results, while googling “fart jokes” yielded 1.5 million.  Should I conclude that the Internet is replete with fart jokes, meaning I should blog about something else, now that I have your attention?  No, I would never do a bait-and-switch.  But I’m going to take a page from my own playbook and try to elevate the fart joke from its lowly oral tradition to actual Literature.

“But wait!” you might ask, “aren’t you afraid of tarnishing the albertnet brand?”  No, ever since I blogged in gory detail about getting a vasectomy, there’s really nowhere I can’t go.  “But what if your mom sees this post—won’t she be offended?”  Well, possibly—in fact, I might be doing something passive-aggressive here, because my mom still hasn’t commented on my Andrei Rublev post, for which she was supposed to be my main audience.  I’m a little hurt.

Okay, enough of this.  On to the fart jokes!


You should know that I’m not going to tell one-line gags here, of the “Guy goes into a bar” sort.  I’ll start with a brief, true story.  Long ago, when my wife and I were living in a tiny apartment in San Francisco, she had one of her friends over.  This friend, whom I’ll call M—, is a striking woman—a former model, in fact—who stands about six feet tall, and may have a reputation for being a flirt.  I knew some friend was guilty of that, and this may have been that friend.  And my wife is the jealous type.

Anyway, out of nowhere M— says, “Ooh, I have a crick in my back.  Dana, can you help me out?  I’ll stand here”—she stood with her arms at her sides—“and you come up behind me, wrap your arms around me, and lift me off the floor.”  It was like a trap.  Due to our similarity in height, things would line up that really shouldn’t, what with me being married and all.

But what could I do?  It was so awkward.  I couldn’t exactly say, “I’m sorry, M—, but you might be the woman with a reputation for flirtatiousness, and the way our bodies would line up, with my wife watching … well, it’s just that she may not trust you, and may not even trust me, and I just can’t do it, but please don’t be offended ... I really am tempted because it would feel pretty awesome.”

I had to make a snap decision and concluded that my wife and I had a deep wellspring of rapport and I could explain myself better to her, later, than I could ever explain myself to our guest.  So I went around behind M—, wrapped my arms around her, and lifted her off the floor.  Sure enough, her back cracked, making a noise like one of those little wooden frogs with the bumpy back that you drag a wooden mallet over.  “Did you hear it?” M— said, delighted.  “Did you hear my back crack?”  I replied, “Oh, is that what that was … I thought you farted!”  If she had been enjoying any sexual tension, it was immediately dissipated (and replaced, of course, by something less pleasant).  I glanced over at my wife, who gave me a look that said, “You have done well.”

In the van

My pals and I were driving back from the Everest Challenge in the van.  The driver, whom I’ll call Thing 1, had extreme flatulence.  The front seat passenger, Thing 2, was suffering the worst.  These guys have known each other for well over a decade and have a totally frank, matter-of-fact rapport.  Here is my best effort to capture their dialogue about all the farting:

Thing 1:  “I’ve noticed that you’re extremely quick about rolling down your window every time I fart.”
Thing 2:  “Yes, I’ve had to develop coping mechanisms.”
Thing 1:  “You’ve got your finger hovering over the window button.  It’s been like that for the last hundred miles.”
Thing 2:  “I’ve developed a nervous tick around it.  It’s totally automatic now.  I’ll be doing this in my sleep.”
Thing 1:  “It’s the pizza.  I shouldn’t have eaten a whole pizza by myself.  I don’t do well with the white flour.”
Thing 2:  “I’m going to have a repetitive stress injury in my finger.  I’m going to have arthritis.”

Not everybody thinks farts are funny

You have to admit, farts are pretty funny.  And yet I’ve come across people who refuse to admit it.  True, many of us get jaded by cheap performance-art gags like using your hand in your armpit to make a fart sound, which cracks kids up so dependably.  And actually, there are people out there who really, truly don’t think farts are funny at all. 

(Microsoft programmers apparently fall into this group; Word has flagged “fart,” in the phrase “fart jokes,” as a misspelling, and when I right-click “fart” the spell-checker suggests “fat.”  I guess these programmers think fat jokes are funnier than fart jokes.  They are so out of touch.)

My dad is a person who simply sees nothing funny about farts.  He is very old-school in the sense that he evidently thinks farts should absolutely never be witnessed.  I have never actually heard him fart.  He’s even too discreet to produce a silent-but-deadly fart.  It’s amazing.  (Not that the polar opposite is in any way better, like the freethinking stepfather who did too much est in the ‘70s and just lets loose at will, thinking that with every burst he’s showcasing his advanced self-esteem).

As a father, I’m very different.  No, I’m not some lax, so-called progressive dad who wants his kids to see him as a pal.  I’m pretty strict; I won’t even let my kids use the word “fart.”  And no, I don’t think all farts are funny, but I won’t pretend they never are.  Here’s a little case study.  In my home office, there is only one proper desk chair, though my giant desk will accommodate three people at a time.  The most popular desk chair alternative is this giant exercise ball.  So one day my daughter and I were computing side by side, and one of us, sitting on the ball, had one of those sudden come-out-of-nowhere farts, a short and powerful one that makes the “BRROEMP!” noise.  It echoed magnificently through the ball, sounding vaguely metallic, kind of droid-like, like when you throw a rock at one of those giant municipal water tanks.  Now that is just plain funny.  We both roared with laughter.  Someday when my daughter is in treatment and her therapist asks, “Wasn’t there anything good about your father?  A single episode where his love for you came through?” she’ll reply, “Well, he once committed the most hilarious flatulence into this exercise ball….” 

(Not that I’m necessarily copping to the ball-fart.  In all honesty, I don’t remember which of us did it.  And if you suspect I’m just being evasive, well ... you may be right.)

Getting back to my own father, I think he’s too dignified even to sit on an exercise ball, unless it’s in an official yoga class.  Meanwhile, his brain occupies a higher plane than ours, devoting itself to lofty and complicated ideas, especially in the science and math realms.  Dinner table conversations usually took the form of my dad lecturing his four sons about science, computers, and futuristic stuff.  At table, there was very little joking around, and never an audible fart.  Except this one time.

Here’s what happened.  Of course I can’t remember exactly what my dad was lecturing on, but let’s suppose the topic was the interferometer he was building at work.  What, you don’t know what an interferometer is?  Here’s a photo:

I’m pretty sure interferometers measure the strength of farts.  (No they don’t.)

So, there we were at the dinner table, my dad deep into explaining the various lasers and whatnot comprising his interferometer, and suddenly—somebody farted loudly.  This had never happened because we were terribly afraid of what might transpire if it did, and there was a long, awkward silence as we boys tried to compose ourselves.  Then the awkwardness became funny (the fart had of course been funny all along), and we looked at each other, the tension thick, all our lips pursed, jaws clenched, and then somebody lost it and it was like dominoes.  The harder we laughed, the harder we laughed, and finally my dad, disgusted, got up from the table and stormed off.  He never returned to his dinner, and afterward my brother Geoff complained, “I never got to hear about the interferometer, and now I’m afraid to ask because it might remind him of the fart.  Or I might start laughing all over again.”

(“But wait,” you might ask, “aren’t you afraid of offending your dad with this post?”  Nope.  He doesn’t read my blog; like so many people, he finds my posts too long.  Besides, as I already said, he doesn’t think farts are funny!  You think his first albertnet post is gonna be “Just A Bunch of Fart Jokes” ?  But just in case he’s reading, let me say this:  Dad, I think you’re actually in the right here.  I used to think it would be funny to see a guy step in dog shit, but I realized recently that these days I wouldn’t actually find this funny, and moreover I can’t remember why I ever thought it would.  So maybe I’m maturing and growing as a person, and someday might reach your level and no longer laugh at farts.)


My college cycling team was sponsored by Gold’s Gym and during the off-season I adopted a weight-lifting regimen with some pals.  We were purists, favoring free weights over Nautilus machines.  Being unable to add bulk to my muscles, I was following the high-weight low-rep program of a track sprinter.  My pals—two men and two women—and I would bike over there at 5:30 in the morning, four days a week.

One morning I was doing the squats, at what I considered a dangerously high weight.  We weren’t fools:  we wore weight belts and always had somebody spotting us.  If necessary, the spotter, standing a few feet behind, would step forward, grab your waist, and help you stand up.  Between sets I chatted away with my spotter, a young woman I’ll call S—.  One morning she asked, “Dana, do you like dancing?”  I was so dense I didn’t realize this might be a leading question, and answered simply (and honestly), “No.”

It was during my next set, specifically the eighth and final rep, when I was in a full squat, thighs splayed, with this giant bar across my shoulders and giant disks on either side, trying with all my might to stand, that two things dawned on me.  One, S— had actually been hinting around about going out with me (which finally answered the question of why a young woman who wasn’t that serious a cyclist and presumably wasn’t looking to bulk up would go to the gym with me at 5:30 a.m.).  My second realization was that I had to fart, and there was no real way to stop it.  Veins were bulging in my forehead, my legs trembling, and it was all I could do to safely finish my squat without needing help.  So out it went, a big ol’ ripper, with poor S— standing so close behind me.

I apologized profusely, and she responded forlornly, “It’s okay.  It doesn’t matter anyway.”  

It’s a pity; I totally would have asked her out, but I recognized the opportunity in the same moment I squashed it.


My wife had a friend over.  The friend, P—,  had driven some way to visit; she was going through some hard times.  My wife was upstairs changing or putting on makeup or something before the two of them went out.  So I sat at the kitchen table with P— trying to make conversation.  P—’s personal troubles were making this difficult, like a dark cloud was hanging over us.  The chitchat occasionally sputtered and stalled, and to my horror I realized a big fart was gathering in my lower regions.  Isn’t it weird how you can tell in advance whether or not a fart will be silent?  This one definitely wouldn’t.  And it was growing and growing inside me and I wasn’t sure it could be contained.  I barely knew this woman and the last thing this conversation needed was that kind of explosive, smelly interruption.

I thought maybe I should just leave, but the nascent fart had grown too big.  I was practically trembling down there and I was sure that, if I stood up, it would definitely burst out.  By an act of fierce concentration I was able to keep my sphincter puckered up tight so the fart couldn’t escape.  And then the weirdest thing happened:  the fart came to fruition without ever leaving my body.  It detonated internally, making a muted but quite audible sound, like an underground nuclear test.  The worst part was that it happened during a lull in our chitchat, so I was sure P— had heard it.  I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened, but “excuse me” seemed like too great a capitulation.  It was just barely possible that P— wouldn’t realize the what sound was.  But I had to say something, and somehow settled on, “Wow, that  was weird.”  I immediately knew I’d only made things worse, but fortunately my wife appeared at that very moment and ended the stalemate.

How to talk about farting

Let’s not kid ourselves:  everybody farts.  Probably most couples are somewhat casual about farting in each other’s presence.  After all, in some circumstances, like a long road trip, it would be bad for your health to suppress a fart for too long.  But how couples feel about their farts surely varies, with one end of the spectrum being the abominable practice of the “Dutch oven” (making a hermetic seal with the bedclothes to trap your significant other in with your fumes), and the other extreme being acute embarrassment.

So, this next bit isn’t actually drawn from personal experience, but is more of a hypothetical situation informed by the great amount of thought I have given to flatulence.  Suppose your wife or girlfriend has a stomach bug or ate too much of the wrong thing or whatever, and is on a farting tear, and decides that the frequency of her flatulence is beginning to erode her dignity.  So she approaches you in a conciliatory mode and is trying to make a generalized apology/explanation, to try to save face.  Of course you want her to dismiss the thought and stop worrying about it (if for no other reason than your vested interest in your mate feeling sexy).

Here’s what to do.  Have in mind a very celebrated beauty, whose very name summons notions of loveliness and elegance.  (You should probably not choose a contemporary beauty, lest your wife worry that you sit around dreaming of starlets.)  Now peer into your significant other’s eyes and say, “Look, everybody farts, and worse.  No less a beauty than Grace Kelly had to wipe her own ass.  She had to spot-check between wipes to determine when she was done.  I don’t know whether she was a TP folder or a wadder, but I guarantee she was one of the two.”  This should help.

Suzy Chapstick

My family took a ski trip recently.  We stayed at a lodge where all the meals are included.  The chef’s special pork chili was really, really good.  I ate like four bowls, not counting what I inherited from my daughters.  The next day I had what I’m pretty sure was the worst chronic flatulence of my life (which, as my cycling buddies will tell you, is really saying something). 

After a day of skiing my kids abandoned their equipment and headed off toward the lodge, leaving me to trail behind schlepping three pairs of skis and poles.  So I was stumbling awkwardly along and dropped one of the poles.  I was on a hill and the snow was icy, so the pole slid a ways.  I figured hey, I’ll just take this opportunity to stop for awhile and pass some more gas.  These were all silent, but they were the really hot kind, and the smell was just absolutely putrid, as though an old man, smeared from head to toe with your dad’s stinky ointment, had died while cradling a giant wheel of foreign cheese, and then man and cheese rotted away for two weeks together before being discovered. 

So I was standing there waiting for the smell to dissipate when from out of nowhere came this very chipper young woman, reminding me a lot of Suzy Chapstick (aka Suzy Chaffee, the ‘70s version of Lindsey Vonn).  “I’ll get it!” she chirped, and helpfully retrieved my fallen pole.  I felt so bad for her … I mean, here she was, just trying to be nice, and then she enters this horrible toxic cloud.  Needless to say, her attitude changed fast when the smell hit her.  Once I had my pole back, she was off like a shot.  I’m surprised she didn’t just drop it at my feet.


What happens in the restroom, stays in the restroom.  It seems like the most discreet place to go when you need to do a lot of farting in a public venue.  So on the way back from our ski vacation, at a Mexican restaurant in Auburn, I headed in there to do some serious offgassing after an hour in the car.  I took my time, trying to get it all out, and there was some jerk who kept knocking loudly and vigorously trying the doorknob.  I kept having to call out “Just a minute!” and “Occupied!”  This went on and on and I couldn’t believe the audacity of this guy.  So when I finally left, I was planning to give him some serious stink-eye, but then I flashed on the legacy I had left in there, and knew this wasn’t even necessary.  Who needs stink-eye when I’d given him stink?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Yes, I Have a Girl’s Name

Curse of the androgynous name

Have a gander at this photo:

Does that look like a guy, or a chick?  I hope you said “guy,” because that photo is of me, at age 16.  Now, I know I don’t exactly look manly in that photo, but I don’t have a big woman-y butt or anything either.  (In fact I have no butt at all, and scarcely any flesh on my legs.)  This was a few years before I needed to start shaving.

That photo accompanied a story I wrote recently for, and it failed to clue the editor in that I’m male.  Why did he need cluing in?  Because I have a girl’s name, of course!  When I looked at the published story online, the mild thrill of seeing my byline was tempered somewhat by the introduction the editor wrote:  “To a teenage Dana Albert nothing could shake her loyalty to her beautiful British Mercian, but there was one exception that still leaves her wondering.”

I alerted the editor, and he quickly fixed the story.  He apologized, citing the infrequency of male Danas in England.  He was apparently unaware that it’s an androgynous name, at least in the U.S.  He did not say, “It would have helped if you looked more masculine in that photo.”  But he might as well have.

(I am not going to call Dana a “unisex” name in case there are people who think “unisex” means “has had sex only one time.”  I’m learning that you can never be too careful.)

Is Dana really a girl’s name?

According to Wikipedia, Dana is commonly used in the U.S. with either sex, and moreover, it is now more popular here as a boy’s name than a girl’s.  Somebody should tell that to corporate America.  So often, I’ll introduce myself on a conference call only to have the host say, “Great to have you on the call, David.”  Occasionally I’ll clarify only to have the person try again:  “Darnell?”  In e-mail exchanges, my correspondent will often decide Dana must be my last name.  Sometimes I give up trying to correct people, which is why some work contacts believe my first name is Albert.

There’s a weekly conference call I attend that requires me to give the moderator my name, with spelling.  I say, “Dana … delta, alpha, November, alpha” which should be clear as a bell, but it still trips people up.  On one occasion the moderator responded, “BANA?!”  Apparently she thought “belta” was a word.  I guess that was more credible to her than a guy being named Dana.

My college Latin prof must have thought my name on the roll call was a misprint, and took to calling me “Dale,” which (because of his peculiar accent) he pronounced “Day-oh,” which sounds just like the Latin word “deo,” which means “god.”  I let that one go, all semester.  It wasn’t until the second semester and the new roll sheet that the prof realized his mistake, apologized for calling my by the wrong name for so long, and began using my real name.  I kind of missed “deo,” to be honest.

In high school, I was frequently the first on the roll-call (based on my last name).  Often a teacher would ask in advance for help with pronunciation or a preferred nickname (e.g., “Bob” for “Robert”).  He would call my name right after this preamble, and I would say, “Here, and, uh, it’s actually pronounced DAYYYYYYY-NUUUUH!”  I would say that in as moronic a voice as possible.  (Disclaimer:  this anecdote is told most often by one of my brothers, to the point that I wonder if it’s possibly apocryphal.  Memory can be weird that way.)

My favorite name-related mistake?  When my mom introduced my wife Erin and me to her priest, she got so flustered she transposed our names, so the priest briefly thought I was Aaron and my wife was Dana.  My mom was really embarrassed.  I stuck up for her:  “I’m not so great with names, either.” 

Erin, by the way, was not amused when we were discussing names for our (as yet unborn) child, and I proposed “Aaron” for a boy and “Dana” for a girl.  Imagine the fun we could have had with telemarketers!

Is a nickname the answer?

I suppose I could find some non-confusing nickname to go by.  My grandfather had a good, solid male name—Norman—which he and/or his colleagues nevertheless didn’t like, so he went by Al.  Myself, I have a long history with nicknames.  For the first month or two of my life, my parents hadn’t agreed on a name for me, and just called me “the baby.”  As kids, my brothers called me Pain-a, which they shortened to P, which briefly became Pee Wee before morphing into Giwi.  They called me Giwi for years.  (My brother Max, whose first name is actually Chris, was nicknamed “Yo” throughout that time.)

Later on I worked at a bike shop where the owner was also named Dana, and also male.  When a customer phoned asking for Dana, it was impossible to tell which one he or she wanted, so we’d ask, “Dana the man, or Dana the boy?”  So “Dana the boy” became my nickname (with a sly allusion to “Johnny the boy,” an über-evil character in the movie Mad Max).  My other nicknames have included Dane, D’na, Uncle Elmer, Professor, Tech-Nova, Danadrive, Dane-ster, and Dana-star (this last being an accidental corruption of Dana-ster, I believe).

But why should I have to go by a nickname, just because people can’t wrap their brains around my girlish name?  I refuse!

Is there an upside to an androgynous name?

A friend (the one who coined the nickname D’na, in fact) sent me a recent article from the New York Times.  A male reader named Dana wrote to the Times ethicist, wondering if it was ethical to be awarded an internship at a tech company on the basis of having been thought female (since tech firms, he believed, seek to balance the sexes in the male-dominated realm).  The ethicist replied that for these hypothetical employers to guess his sex based on his name was their problem, and anyway Dana was the name the reader had been given so he’s free to use it.

Makes sense, but what about other scenarios?  What if being thought female could be a disadvantage, like if the employer is sexist in the traditional way?  I wonder what opportunities I might have missed out on based on my chick name.  Should I try going by D.P. Albert, following the example of S.E. Hinton, who feared nobody could take seriously her novel about gang violence if they’d known she was a woman? 

I guess it depends on what I’m trying to do.  I doubt being female is much of a hindrance in modern publishing, and in fact my name may have helped me get into a very exclusive creative writing class in college.  The professor, Maxine Hong Kingston, was reputed to favor females, though I have no reason to believe this was true (other than having gotten into her class).

My androgynous name did help me recruit students for a bike repair class I hosted as a fund-raiser for my daughter’s school.  To my surprise, almost all my students were female.  Don’t guys want to fix their own bikes?  Or are they unable to admit they don’t know how?  The one male who attended saw all those women and must have been spooked, because he only stayed a little while.  I know for a fact that at least one of my students expected me to be female:  she actually complained about what seemed, to her, a bait-and-switch.  All because my flier at the school auction had my (girlie) name on it.


It is impossible for me to feel sorry for myself whenever my name causes confusion, because I myself am responsible for an egregious error  of my own.  In high school biology class, I had a couple of pals, Bill and Ken.  Early on, Bill heard me refer to Ken as “he” and corrected me:  “Ken is a girl!”  I was surprised, but mainly because Ken is so obviously a boy’s name.  Other than that, the claim didn’t seem so outlandish.  Despite having short hair and a flat chest, Ken did seem rather feminine.  But Ken, for a girl?  Bill insisted this was the case, and so I believed him.  I mean, why would he lie?

So, for months I believed that I’d actually made friends with a girl.  This was a first; normally, at that age, I was so terrified of girls I could barely speak in their presence.  This fear began in junior high, when I somehow fell into conversation with a girl I had a total crush on.  It seemed to be going well, and I got so excited I decided the only thing keeping me from being downright suave was my orthodontic appliance, a big gross thing called a Frankel, which required me to speak through clenched teeth.  This was tricky, especially since the Frankel tended to make me drool, which I was probably doing to begin with because this girl was so cute.  So I decided to ditch the Frankel, as casually as possible.  I discreetly popped open the plastic Frankel case and kind of let the Frankel fall out of my mouth right into it.  The girl recoiled, made a horrible face, and turned away.  She never talked to me again.

And yet, around Ken I was so natural, so relaxed, so … myself!  I realized (erroneously) that it was actually possible to be friends with a girl so long as there was no physical attraction whatsoever.  This might not seem like any big deal until you consider the raging hormones of a teenager.  I was feeling downright sophisticated.

Well, as you can guess, this illusion didn’t hold up forever.  One day, the teacher was having us grade one another’s tests (calling out the right answers while we, disinterested third parties that we were, marked our neighbor’s answers right or wrong).  I was grading Ken’s paper and came upon a grey area.  I raised my hand and said, “She put such-and-such.”  Ken said, “What?!?”  I said, “I said, ‘She put such-and-such,’ which you did—look.” 

She—er, he—said, “You said ‘she!’”  To which I replied, innocently, “Well, yeah, of course—you’re a girl!”  Having long believed this to be the case, I said this completely innocently.  Red-faced, Ken said indignantly, “No I’m not, I’m a boy!”  The whole class erupted in laughter.  I was still baffled, and said (with sincere incredulity), “You’ve gotta be kidding me!”  More laughter.  Man, once I realized what was going on, I felt so bad.  Of course our “friend” Bill was laughing hardest of all.

(Did my friendship with Ken survive this humiliating misunderstanding?  Honestly, I can’t recall.  The aftermath is eclipsed by that of a similar gaff.  In chemistry class the next year, I had a friend with a funny surname (Deutschlander) and really bad breath.  One day, when we were doing a lab together, I just couldn’t tolerate his breath anymore, and—thinking I was doing him a favor—drew his attention to it.  The problem was, I was in such a huff I accidentally called him by the secret nickname everybody used behind his back:  Douche-lander.  Between the criticism and the nickname, he was completely offended and never talked to me again.)

In conclusion, when it comes to being mistaken for female, I guess I’d much rather this confusion be based on my name appearing in print, with nothing else to go by.  So far as I know, the people I meet aren’t whispering to each other, “That is the ugliest woman I have ever seen.”

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inside the Corporate Yurt

To start off, I never actually did get to occupy one of the yurts.  The tour was moving quickly, and with the open floor plan and my poor spatial skills, I feared that to be left behind would mean getting totally lost.  But I got a good look at the yurts.  They were about ten feet tall and a dozen feet in diameter, made of wood and light fabric, and open in the front.  The walls were divided in triangular sections and varied from opaque to translucent to nothing.  Some yurts had chairs; others just had cushions.

I was visiting a San Francisco tech company, in the hip South-of-Market (SOMA) neighborhood, with windows overlooking the bay.  It was a very large, high-ceilinged lofty space.  No matter why I was there; for all you know, I toured it just for this blog, or was covering corporate kitchens, freelance, for Ladies’ Home Journal.  I will tell you I was not being recruited, though it’s hard to tour such a novel, interesting place and not imagine working there.

Modern, quirky, colorful furniture was scattered around, in  (seemingly) random fashion.  There was quite a bit of empty space.  Some areas had empty chairs and desks arranged in neat rows, like a classroom, but mostly the arrangement was ad hoc.  Our guide explained that all the desks—which were pretty much just tables—could easily be raised so you could stand at them instead of sitting.  The overall vibe was more trade show than corporate HQ.

One thing I saw zero of?  Offices.  There were a few meeting rooms, but the walls and doors were all glass.  Also conspicuously absent:  cubicles.  Cubicles equal Dilbert.  Offices, meanwhile, suggest hierarchy and bureaucracy.  This wall-less, open floor plan might be designed as a spatial metaphor for the open-standards hi-tech development realm that removes barriers to innovation.  The place just says “startup.”

Oddly, the company I visited isn’t actually a startup.  It started that way (obviously), but as so often happens it was soon purchased by an industry juggernaut, though it still operates as its own company.  This is not an Uber-type outfit that will blow up a giant, embedded system of logistics and replace it with something categorically different.  Their product will not go viral, or change society, or get you laid.  As tech products go, it’s not on the same lowly end of the spectrum as an HP printer, but it’s also not Facebook.  It’s essentially the Internet equivalent of a much, much better mousetrap.

Better mousetraps, of course, are not sexy, because they’re not … wait for it … disruptive.  The Pied Piper .. now he was disruptive.  Perhaps when a more or less traditional tech company like this, that manufactures objects you can physically touch, tries to recruit top Gen-Y talent, it helps if the work environment is non-traditional, playful, and wacky.

There was an order to things, though.  Different functions (HR, marketing, engineering, operations) were arranged in informal clumps, with empty space between.  This workplace has the sprawl of a megalopolis, at least for now.  So did all this empty space feel moribund, like a ghost town?  Nope.  New-and-empty is a lot different than old-and-empty.  The atmosphere was one of great confidence:  “We may not need all this space right now, but we will soon.”

I had to wonder, where are the Razor scooters?  Maybe that would seem clichéd.  Could it be that employee scooters are over?  I mentioned them to my teenage daughter and she said, “Epic! I need that!”  So, even if they’re passé, maybe they’ll make a comeback in a few years.

Inside one yurt was a giant flat-screen monitor connected to a variety of gaming systems.  Predictable enough.  But then another space had pinball machines, which (our guide told us) were brought in by an employee from his personal collection.  My daughter played her first game of pinball recently, at the Exploratorium (a museum) and was bummed when I outscored her.  How do these pinball machines play out here?  If the rare older employee dazzles the millennials with his skills, does this make him cool or lame?

I couldn’t help but wonder, as we wandered through, what this workplace would be like for an introvert like me.  I could imagine developing a case of agoraphobia here, like so much openness would eventually wear me out.  Of course the idea behind this setting is to encourage collaboration and creativity, but doesn’t the latter flourish in a completely private space?  (I’m thinking here of writers’ or artists’ colonies where you mingle some of the time, but also have a private studio or cottage where you are utterly free from distractions.)

In tech, you certainly need extroverts to dazzle investors, recruit talent, and generate enough media hype to keep the vision alive ... but you also need coders and engineers, and aren’t a lot of these folks on the shy side?  What do they do for privacy … plug in headphones and listen to music?  It wasn’t that loud in there ... perhaps employees don’t always take advantage of being face-to-face.  Maybe a lot of them just have instant message chats all day, with colleagues six feet away.

There was a room, larger than the yurts, that actually had two or three opaque walls, and in the corner was a baby grand piano.  I could imagine this being really useful for an introvert … he could go in there and surround himself with a wall of sound.  Of course this only helps if you know how to play.

Just like at Google, there was a large cafeteria where all the food is free.  “Cafeteria” gives the wrong impression; the combination of tall windows overlooking the bay, the high ceiling, and the scattering of small, round tables created the feel of a café (though one that goes on and on).  I was too late for the spare ribs, but had some apricot chicken, and ravioli that was so sophisticated I can’t remember what was in it.  Squash, I guess, and the pasta casing was varicolored (spinach and sun-dried tomato?), lightly bathed in brown butter instead of a boring tomato sauce.  There was a large salad station (as far from the little buckets and sneeze-guards of a salad bar as this company’s workspace is from a cube farm).  The most sophisticated thing about the cafeteria was this:  not only did they have bottled soda instead of fountain drinks, they had Mexican Coke (made with sugar instead of corn syrup).  Pretty impressive.

Outside the cafeteria was a little table with a sign saying “Suggestions.”  There was no paper to write on or box to drop a written suggestion into.  Rather, the table was covered with Lego, with which to spell out your comment.  Brevity is clearly encouraged.

The tour ended with the lunch, and I never had the chance to ask what, exactly, was the purpose of the yurts.  Perhaps that’s for the best … maybe our guide wouldn’t have had a definitive answer, and maybe it’s better just to wonder.  Here are a few of my guesses: 
  • A pseudo-private meeting place.  Occupation of the yurt tells passers-by not to join in on the discussion.  In this way, the yurt functions like the conch in Lord of the Flies.
  • A place for having a time-out.  Talking is not allowed in the yurt, so it’s a place where an introvert goes to daydream.
  • A place for a punitive time-out, like the ominously named “center pod” in my kid's kindergarten class, where misbehaving students did time.
  • The yurt is symbolic of a nomadic inclination, and serves to remind upper management that they must continuously renew the love of their young, flighty talent.
  • The yurt is a living experiment, perhaps one of many, being conducted by a very sophisticated, savvy HR department, to gain insight into the mysterious minds of their Gen-Y employees.
  • The yurt is actually mostly useless, and exists only so the company can boast of having yurts.
Do you have any theories?  Have you lived or worked in a yurt?  Comment below, or e-mail me.  And if you’re reading this long, long after 2015, in a time when corporate yurts are ubiquitous, send me your recollections (e.g., “I’ll never forget my first yurt…”) and I’ll post them here, or in a follow-up essay.