Monday, March 25, 2024

Easter FAQ - A Guide for Newcomers


I work with people from around the world (generally via videoconference). Those who are overseas, or only recently moved here, are often unfamiliar with American traditions. For example, when I joined a meeting early and was chatting with a native-born colleague about Groundhog Day, a foreign-born colleague joined a little late and struggled to come up to speed. Flummoxed by phrases like “Punxsutawney Phil,” he asked, “Are you guys talking about football?”

With Easter Sunday coming up, I figured I’d try to provide a handy guide, in the time-honored format of Frequently Asked Questions, for anyone similarly mystified by this admittedly rather complicated holiday.

(No, I’m not really an Easter expert, but maybe it’s better that way; I’ll be less inclined to overestimate how much people already know.)

Easter Sunday Frequently Asked Questions

What is Easter all about?

Easter is a fundamentally a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, though non-Christians in the West often celebrate it as a basic festival, more in the spirit of springtime, a seasonal renewal. In America, as with so many traditions, it can seem like mainly an excuse to eat food that is bad for us.

When is Easter celebrated?

Easter is always on a Sunday, but where the specific date is concerned things get complicated. The holiday takes place anywhere between late March and late April, based on a complex algorithm that people have bickered about for hundreds of years. To this day, different Christian denominations celebrate it on different days. According to Wikipedia, the West celebrates Easter “on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after 21 March (a fixed approximation of the March equinox).” So this year in America, it’s this coming Sunday, March 31. That said, the Greek Orthodox church won’t celebrate it until May 5. So, if you’re late getting a card in the mail, you’ve got your excuse!

Wait a second – if Jesus was resurrected on a specific day, why does the commemoration date depend on moon cycles?

I have always assumed this moon-phase-after-equinox thing was an attempt to move in on the pagans’ action and have the holiday compete with their traditional seasonal celebrations (like how Christmas is conveniently close to the Winter solstice, and my birthday is very close to the Summer solstice). (Yes, that last bit was a joke.) But my theory doesn’t appear to be correct; Wikipedia (which has a very long article about the date of Easter) declares, “The complexity of the algorithm arises because of the desire to associate the date of Easter with the date of the Jewish feast of Passover which, Christians believe, is when Jesus was crucified.” I like that: “the desire.” Whose desire? They don’t say. I don’t suspect very many people actually care how Easter relates to Passover, much less to any astronomical matters. It’s not like if we were out for a night walk anyone would ever say, “Wait a second, how can it be Easter tomorrow? Look at the moon! Does that look like a last quarter moon to you?!”

How is Easter celebrated?

Many Catholics observe various days during Holy Week (the week before Easter), leading up to Good Friday (celebrating the death by crucifixion of Jesus and no, I have no idea why it’s called “Good” Friday). On the night before Easter, some attend an all-night vigil, as I did once at a Greek Orthodox church as the guest of a friend. I had to stand the whole time because, as a relative heathen, I didn’t want to take up one of the coveted seats in the pews. I had been instructed by my friend that the vigil would end in the morning with special music and then the Paschal greeting, aka Easter Acclamation, whereby everybody would turn to his or her neighbor and say, “Christ is risen!” to which the traditional response is, “He is risen indeed!” At some point I forgot how I was supposed to respond, and sweated over it the rest of the night … I had one line to deliver—was I really gonna flub it? As the sleep deprivation got to me, I started worrying that I’d blurt out something like, “Amen, of course, yes,” or “Word up,” or “And also with you.” In the event, I didn’t actually choke … I probably took a cue from everyone else, and/or my response was indistinct among the hundreds of people talking at once.

Religious traditions aside, almost everyone tends to eat chocolate eggs and jelly beans on Easter, and to dye hard boiled eggs, and to have a special dinner, often something really tasty like lamb. And there’s lots of talk about, and pictorial representations of, the Easter Bunny, who’s kind of like a furry animal Santa.

What’s up with the eggs? Is that something Jesus was into?

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole (sorry, couldn’t resist), try googling “did Jesus like eggs.” One article says definitely yes, but I couldn’t get any details due to a paywall. A PETA site says Jesus certainly didn’t eat eggs and you shouldn’t either. Mostly the results are dead ends. I think it’s fair to conclude that the Easter egg has more to do with basic symbolism. Wikipedia says that in the Christian tradition, the eggs “symbolize the empty tomb of Jesus.” The Encyclopedia Britannica says that early Christians repurposed some existing symbolism from pagans who “viewed eggs as a symbol of the regeneration that comes with springtime.”

Does the Easter Bunny actually lay the Easter eggs? In other words, is she of the special order of mammals called monotremes, like the platypus?

I had to do a little research on this one. I can find no evidence that the Easter Bunny actually lays these eggs (even according to the folklore and modern traditions), nor that the Easter Bunny is even female. According to Wikipedia, “In ancient times, it was widely believed (as by Pliny, Plutarch, Philostratus, and Aelian) that the hare was a hermaphrodite.” Can a hermaphrodite lay eggs? Well, sort of, but more in the sense of sperm + eggs, not the kind of egg that has a shell and thus can represent an empty tomb.

Meanwhile, both Wikepedia and Britannica mention that eating eggs is forbidden during the Lenten period before Easter, but nobody tells the hens to stop laying, so the ensuing glut is part of why eggs figure in to Easter. So I think it’s fair to say these Easter eggs are chicken eggs, not rabbit eggs. In my family’s case, my kids were never nosy enough to ask where the Easter Bunny gets the eggs, so I didn’t have to make anything up. Perhaps that’s unfortunate; I’d have liked to work monotremic mammals into our family lore.

Why are the Easter eggs dyed?

According to Wikipedia, eggs were originally dyed red to symbolize “the blood of Christ, shed at his crucifixion.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps other colors were brought in to make the holiday more pleasant. Can you imagine how the notions of bloodshed + egg + Easter Bunny might get jumbled up in a young child’s imagination in alarming ways?

Easter egg hunts seem to be a big part of the tradition. Who (supposedly) hides the eggs?

I think the folklore around who hides the eggs will naturally vary from family to family. My wife and I didn’t like the idea of an outdoor Easter egg hunt, for reasons of hygiene, but also couldn’t be bothered to create any mythology around the Easter Bunny sliding down the chimney or some other explanation for how he or she would get in to the house, which we lock up like a citadel. Plus, the hunt was always for the eggs that the kids themselves had dyed, so to pretend the Easter Bunny hid them would have been a real stretch. So my wife and I were candid about being the hiders of the eggs.

According to this article, quoting Lizette Larson-Miller, a professor with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, “We know that Martin Luther had Easter egg hunts where the men hid the eggs for the women and children and it probably has this connection back to this idea of eggs being the tomb.” I don’t think this aspect of the Easter tradition has survived to modern times.

My kids ultimately became too competitive around the Easter egg hunts, which took most of the fun out of it, so my wife and I turned the tables and had the kids hide the eggs for us. This became a real challenge because their hiding places were so devious, some eggs wouldn’t turn up for several weeks.

That photo at the top of this post is so weird. Is it typical of the holiday?

It’s part of an entire series of strange photos my dad took of my brothers and me with our eggs one year. We never saw the photos until decades later, after his death, because he always shot slide film and almost never did slide shows, owing to his clunky projector and his workaholism. Going through his stuff (so I could sell his house), I found boxes and boxes of slides, I mean like thousands, with this series among them. Check out this choice shot:

That kid looks really stressed. What’s going on there?

My brothers and I weren’t used to our dad paying much attention to us, and couldn’t figure out the odd posing of these photos. I suspect this kid, who is either Bryan or Geoff, was just kind of flummoxed, like “Who is this weird dad guy?” and/or was afraid of letting the old man down by not posing properly.

Why do those eggs say ‘Mommy Day’ on them? Is that part of Easter?

No, mommies are not celebrated as part of Easter; modern cultures have Mother’s Day for that. Who knows what this kid was thinking. Perhaps he was somehow conflating the two holidays due to sheer ignorance. It’s natural he wouldn’t have used the word “Mother” because we were afraid of it … we could only say “Mommy.” We were even more afraid of the word “Father” and could only say “Daddy.” I once said “Dad” because I was about to get spanked for a childish infraction and was trying to be as casual as possible so I said, “Sorry, Dad,” which seemed to fan the flames of his anger such that it was one of the worst spankings I ever had. To make matters worse, when my brothers later mocked me about the spanking (which mocking went on for many weeks), their chorus was always “Sorry, Dad.” Thus, nobody said “Dad” for at least ten more years. But I realize I’m getting way off into the weeds here. I want to emphasize that our family was not normal and our eggs and the way we’ve posed with them are not representative of any Easter tradition.

How did the Easter holiday come to incorporate candy instead of just chicken eggs and a big feast?

According to Wikipedia, “as many people give up sweets as their Lenten sacrifice, individuals enjoy them at Easter.” There’s probably some truth to this, but since a majority of Americans don’t observe Lent, this part of the observance is probably related more to: hey, candy! Yum!

As with most American traditions, the theme of excess is well represented by our Easter holiday. The number of candies and their size have increased significantly in my lifetime. No longer are we limited to egg-shaped chocolates; now we have bunny-shaped chocolates that one day will probably grow to be life-sized. In America, we have a word for this indulgence. We call it: freedom.

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Saturday, March 16, 2024

The Power of Loafing


I am not a lazy person and don’t consider myself an expert loafer. Nor do I advocate sloth in general. That said, I will argue that being judicious about when to take your foot off the gas can turn loafing into a superpower.

Who, what, where, when, why, and how?

This post is for the modern knowledge worker who nowadays has a lot of flexibility in his or her workday. The what herein is to explain how this freedom can be an issue. It doesn’t overmuch matter where this work is done, but the ability to work from home is part of the equation. When is of course right now and going forward, and the why is because I sense the encroachment of so-called “grind culture” and want to help spare you from it, just as I continually attempt to spare myself. Now, there is plenty of literature out there about the evils of grind culture, but I’m going to illustrate, through what I hope is a potent metaphor, how to convince yourself to passively fight it—that is, to loaf strategically.

Some background

If you haven’t come across the term “grind culture” (aka “hustle culture”), you either lead a blessed work life, or (like me up until recently) you have been missing out on a handy way to describe something you’ve surely noticed, probably pondered, and—I hope—have found yourself questioning. The New York Times, in this article, calls grind culture “performative workaholism” and cites Elon Musk’s pro-grind tweet, “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” It’s worth pointing out that Musk, who advocates working at least 80, is a douchebag.

Grind culture promotes unabashed ambition, supported by long hours and what its proponents like to call “grit” (though “self abasement” would be more accurate in this case). Its adherents don’t seem to realize, or at least don’t tend to acknowledge, that a company’s executives are the main beneficiaries of this culture. Grinders also apparently don’t grasp (or perhaps simply don’t care) that this relative minority of highly ambitious people can set a new productivity standard for a workplace, that spills over onto colleagues who might prefer greater work/life balance.

The Times article I just cited was written before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, I fear things have only gotten worse. These days, a lot more knowledge workers work from home, and the flexibility this gives them to tend to personal matters (e.g., picking up a kid from school, putting in a load of laundry) also gives management a reasonable basis for expecting employees to be available for a much longer period of time each day. As another Times article explains, “Cellphones and laptops have made it impossible for many people to wall off eight hours of the day for paid labor and another eight for everything else, and they threaten to return all of us to an era of nonstop, undercompensated labor.” And as this Forbes article asserts, even as productivity has increased with teleworking, management doesn’t often perceive this; a study by Microsoft found that “49% of managers of hybrid workers struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.” In this climate, perhaps the nervousness we may have about the visibility of our output (since we’re not observed to be in the office at our post) contributes to our temptation to send emails or Slack messages at 10 p.m.

So how do we combat this impulse to work longer and more? How do we fight the trend toward performative workaholism? For me, it’s a matter of differentiating between doing more and doing my best. Since this is a vague notion, I will now proceed to my metaphor.

Life imitates sport

I’m an assistant coach for a high school mountain bike racing team. Unlike a track coach who just stands around on the infield with a clipboard and shouts instructions, we cycling coaches actually ride with the kids, the whole time, every practice. This gets progressively, inevitably more difficult every year. The kids obviously never age because it’s a rotating crop: every year a quarter of them graduate and are replaced by incoming freshmen. I, on the other hand, am not getting any younger, or stronger, and my bike gearing isn’t getting any lower. Needless to say, the hills around here aren’t getting any flatter.

It’s been such a wet winter, there are only a few trails we can reliably ride without getting bogged down in mud. This leaves two main routes we can ride right now: Big Springs Trail and Seaview Trail. The summit of Seaview, at 1,905 feet elevation, is the highest point in the Berkeley hills, and the climb up it is a bitch. In fact, there’s a section I can barely make.

Let me describe how this works for me, with my last trip up it as an example. There’s this long, steep opening bit that is a total grind, but doable, and then we descend for a bit and catch our breath. Then it the trail starts climbing again, and this time of year we’re dodging puddles and so forth, and then, just before the grade gets truly brutal, there’s a very shallow, almost flat bit. I happen to have a photo.

After the slow slog up to this shallow bit, it’s always tempting to pick up the pace, but I never take the bait. For this reason, I frequently get passed at this spot, as happened last time. One of the kids I coach had been nipping at my heels the whole way, and when I laid off the pace here he blew right by me. I cared not a whit. He’s inarguably faster than I am, and after all my job isn’t to beat him, it’s to coach him. Moreover, my job in this moment was just to get up the damn hill.

I continued to loaf, and before long could hear another rider behind me. And now the grade suddenly became almost unbearably steep. I had no choice but to dig deep. I could still hear the kid behind me, gears whirring and panting increasing, and I now faced the hardest part of the climb: a very rocky place with a lot of tree roots, which don’t actually look so bad in this photo but can easily stop a middle-aged rider dead when he’s barely handling the climb to begin with.

Over the years I’ve compared notes with other coaches about the best path through this notoriously difficult section. On this last trip, I managed to thread my way through, just barely, through a combination of the perfect line and an all-out, leg-searing effort that bumped my bike over the inevitable rocks and roots I couldn’t steer around. And now here’s my point: the rider behind me didn’t manage it. I heard the distinctive sound of a cleat clicking out of a pedal (so he wouldn’t tip all the way over after losing all momentum) and the inevitable whuff of frustration. A rock or root had stopped him cold. And this didn’t happen because he’s less strong than I am (after all, in the group I ride with these days, they’re all stronger than I), nor because he’s less skilled. It’s almost certainly because he was closer to being redlined than I was when he reached that section: because he was already drilling it before the steep stuff began. On the shallow section, I wasn’t just loafing to loaf. It was a matter of survival. That steep, rough part is so hard, I have to be rested—physically and psychologically—before giving it my all to get through it. When a 100% effort is required, you (or at least I) cannot already be maxed out before reaching it. That pause to collect myself was as important as the odd, protracted centering routine a high-diver goes through before starting his or her dive.

Alas, the grade doesn’t ease up: this section of climbing demands several more minutes of excruciation. But you know what’s worse? Trying to get rolling again on a rocky, pebbly, loose, root-infested 16% grade with only one foot clipped in. It’s awkward and frustrating and saps your will. There’s a world of difference between making it the whole way in one shot, and getting stymied and starting over. Having to unclip from your pedal is how you lose a mountain bike race.

I trust this metaphor isn’t particularly hard for you to decode. Just as I would advise you, on your first-ever bike ride up Seaview, to ease up and rest your legs before the really steep part, I  want to convey to you how important I think it is to pace yourself elsewhere in life. Alas, the metaphor falls flat pretty quickly, because life does not  always imitate sport. In real life, you’re not heading up a known trail; you can’t plan ahead where you’re going to strategically loaf.

When to loaf in life

My workplace, which I suspect is typical of a modern American corporation in a fast-changing industry, is unpredictable. It’s generally impossible to predict when the hammer will come down. (I sometimes envy tax accountants or line cooks who know in advance when things are going to get crazy.) In my industry we’re conditioned to see change as opportunity, and to embrace the ethos of “disruption,” to figure out new schemes to go take more market share, and blah blah blah. We don’t have the luxury of cooling our jets just ahead of a big effort because we never know when that will be—or, more to the point, we’re supposed to be bringing it about ourselves, constantly. That is the essence of grind culture. (This extends beyond the workplace, of course, unless you’re a childless bachelor(ette) and orphan. Families introduce countless opportunities for entropy to throw us into a tailspin, particularly if we’re trying to run our family like a CEO would run a business.)

So, without guideposts like a really steep, rough section of trail, and with the constant pressure to find more work to do, how are we supposed to know when to loaf? My answer is “whenever we reasonably can.” Of course this will vary from job to job, and from life to life, but the point is, we are all free to pause and question, throughout our workday, what truly needs to be done next, and when, and why. Who is waiting on it? Am I doing this because somebody is counting on me, or am I trying to show somebody up?

In my experience, we’re not always given deadlines, but instead are asked how soon we can have something done. This question can feel like a version of “How good are you?” It can seem to force a reckoning: am I going to do right by my employer no matter what the personal cost, to prove I’m a team player and the kind of baller Elon Musk would praise? Or do I stick up for my right to work a normal day? Actually, I think this is a false dichotomy. Over-committing yourself and failing to deliver doesn’t help anybody. We have to accept—actually, to understand and to some extent define—what is sustainable for us. I define “sustainable” not as “the outer limit of what I am capable of” but “what I can sustain without wearing myself down, making mistakes, and spinning my wheels.” To return to my cycling metaphor, I don’t want to overextend myself, grind to a halt, and have to clip out of my pedal.

Strategic loafing isn’t just about how we run our day, but how long we run our day: when we decide to shut down and what shutting down means. Just as a physical workplace used to help us segregate work and life, the act of powering off our computers became the more modern way to close the door on the workplace, even for telecommuters. Now, as the Times has pointed out, cellphones can tether us for our entire waking life. Strategic loafing means the courage to close down Slack (etc.) at a reasonable hour and resolve not to open our work email until tomorrow. (Ideally we’d resolve also to limit indulgence in our digital “feed,” that fusillade of incoming crap so many invite in for their poor brains to grapple with on personal time. But that’s another post.)

More cycling metaphor

Cycling has taught me more than just how to pace myself in the moment. It has also taught me how to pace myself through the season. There is a time for rest, and a time to hammer. Yes, I can give it my all, that heralded 100%, but only for about two hundred meters until I go anaerobic. And I can dial my effort up until I’m at my anaerobic threshold (e.g., like when going up Seaview), but I can’t keep that up for hours at a time. And not every ride can be a hammer-fest; some days need to be mellow—a conversational pace. Time off is necessary, to let the body recover. The analogy here to resting our minds and psyches throughout our workweeks and careers should be pretty obvious to anyone who doesn’t brag about how long he’s gone without a lunch break or a vacation. What if all that world-beating doesn’t end up enabling a person to make a killing and retire at 45? Then what? Twenty more years of the same? I guess Elon Musk has never heard of base miles.

Call to inaction?

When I entered the corporate workforce, I was terribly afraid of workaholism. What if it ran in families? My dad was a hopeless workaholic. Every morning he was in the office by 8:30, came home promptly at 7:45 for dinner, then left again and wasn’t home until after 10pm … seven days a week. It was the rare week he didn’t put in at least 80 hours. Alas, this didn’t result in a particularly brilliant career; in fact, when he was right about the age I’m at now, he burned out completely and fell out of the workforce. (All three of his marriages had already ended.) That was my example of what not to do.

Such was my paranoia about falling into bad work habits, I made a point not to put in too many hours. I was willing to risk not meeting some vague expectation; I figured if my hours were too low my manager would let me know. Obviously my output had to be on par with my overworked colleagues, which meant working fast. Cycling had given me an obsession with efficiency, and I applied that to my career. Hoping that MO would be enough, I didn’t layer overlong workdays on top of it.

So did this approach work out? Well, here’s a telling anecdote. A few years into my career, I was at a team-building offsite in Palm Springs (back in the days of such things) and management presented a bunch of awards. I don’t remember the categories, etc. but toward the end our branch director presented a big one, and started describing the winner: he’s this, he’s that, and (this is the part that jumped out at me), “He is no stranger to working long nights and weekends.” At this, I started to feel something like sour grapes—as in, “Is that what it takes to get recognized around here?” but then I caught myself and reflected on my principles. I reminded myself, “Hey, I don’t need to be the big winner. There’s more to life than career ambition. I have work/life balance. Let this guy have his glory, he’s made sacrifices for it.” My rumination was suddenly interrupted when the director called out the name of the winner: “Dana Albert!”

I was absolutely stunned. Me? Long nights? Weekends? Huh? It wasn’t until I reflected on this later that I realized the director wouldn’t have been around in the evenings or weekends to see me hard at work, any more than my dad’s bosses had witnessed him. That I put in long hours was just an assumption. My reputation was based more on results than on rudimentary metrics like hours worked. So: if what ultimately matters is our output, who needs the performative workaholism of grind culture?

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating naps throughout the day, or only working eight hours a day as a golden rule. I’ve used the word “loafing” here somewhat flippantly, to get your attention. What I am talking about is more of a return to a work life with guardrails. If the traditional work/life boundaries are no longer available, at least we should have an awareness of the need to set new ones. I want to take care of myself first, and my employer second, because this serves us both better in the long run. Professionally speaking, I want to be the guy who, when a bomb is dropped, isn’t already overwhelmed, isn’t sleep-derived, won’t get frazzled, knows how to work fast, and can quickly put his hands on all the resources he needs. In a nutshell, I want to be the guy who’s not gonna clip out and tip over. To the tired old cliché “I work hard and I play hard,” I would add a crucial third element: “I rest hard.”

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Thursday, March 7, 2024

From the Archives - Bits & Bobs Volume XIII


This is the thirteenth installment in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here, Volume II is here, Volume III is here, Volume IV is here, Volume V is here, Volume VI is here, Volume VII is here, Volume XIII is here, Volume IX is here, Volume X is here, Volume XI is here, and Volume XII is here. (The different volumes have nothing to do with one another and can be read in any order, or underwater, or not at all.)

The Bits & Bobs series is the reason I’ve been called “a master of the short, short form” by … nobody! These are excerpts from emails, letters, etc. that I wrote to friends and family before I started this blog and channeled all my literary compulsion into this single endeavor. Read on if it’s bedtime and you’re jittery, or even better, read this aloud from your phone to some rando on the bus.

October 13, 1995

Thanks for offering me the TV, but no thanks, I’m good. I don’t miss having one, and when someone asks something like, “Did you see ‘Friends’ last night?” I kind of enjoy replying, “No, I don’t have a TV.” No matter how offhandedly I deliver this message, I probably come off sounding sanctimonious and superior, which causes my interlocutor to judge and despise me, which of course everyone enjoys doing, so I can feel good about doing someone a favor in giving him that pleasure. Often, I’ll be asked, “No TV?! How do you keep up with the news?” The answer is, I mostly don’t, since we don’t get a newspaper either. I figure if something’s important, I’ll hear about it one way or the other. I get enough news by reading the headline thru the window of the newspaper vending machine while I’m waiting for the bus. What’s the point of being more informed than that? What am I going to do about anything? Is there a cautionary tale in the OJ Simpson murder case? As long as I understand that 1) our country is a vicious planet-plundering machine, and 2) people are dying all over the world and I have it so good, and 3) we won’t know how the Raiders will stack up this season until we see them play Dallas, then I think I’m informed enough.

November 12, 1996

Since I’m not hosting Thanksgiving, I guess it’s really not my call as to whether you invite B—. But since you asked, my personal opinion is ABSOLUTELY NOT. First of all, in the best of scenarios, the guy is a jerk, a pain in the ass to have around, he’s ugly, and he stinks. I know that it’s customary that one’s parent is automatically entitled to bring his or her spouse to a holiday gathering, but with a divorce pending it really seems like we ought to have some wiggle room here. Of additional consideration are the specific facts of the case: B— has zero tact, zero hygiene, and zero sense of humor, and he has shown rising resentment at the fact that we Albert boys are typically kind, tactful, humorous, fun to have around, inoffensive visually, and known either for no odor at all, or for a swarthy, masculine sweat smell that isn’t unpleasant (lacking, as it does, that strange and somehow non-human scent element that makes you want to hurl, that afflicts certain men perhaps at random, or perhaps as a form of punishment). If you said you were considering inviting Charles Manson, I would be more ambivalent; after all, he would at least be interesting company. We could interview him and gain insight into the life of a sociopathic, psychotic killer. But with B—, we’d just have a whining, complaining, jittery, humorless little pot-bellied man lashing out against everything and everyone in his environment, wishing he could be somewhere else—playing bridge, perhaps, accumulating the points necessary to be an All-Time Grand Master Great King and Grand Poobah of that discipline. Finally, I offer you one additional consideration: if B— were to attend (and I don’t know why he’d even accept other than to deliberately be a pain in the ass, in addition to having nowhere else to go), I might be tempted to tell him what I really think of him, without the extraordinary tact and restraint I’ve demonstrated here. But of course, it’s all up to you as you’re the host. So please do feel free to invite him, in which case I will simply cancel my flight and make other arrangements, such as biking over to McDonalds on Thanksgiving, even if I can’t be sure it’ll even be open.

December 12, 1996

Did you hear about this woman who sued DEC for her carpal tunnel syndrome? It’s kind of odd. The reason she won her case is that DEC had done employee training on ergonomics & stress-injuries, but didn’t give the same training to its customers, and didn’t post a carpal tunnel syndrome warning label on the keyboards they manufactured for sale. Flagrant disregard for health and safety! So why didn’t this woman sue her own employer for not giving her ergonomics training? Probably because DEC has deeper pockets. So I’m going to sue UPS (both because I hate them and because I like money). The way I figure it, there’s no way they don’t train their employees to lift heavy objects with bent knees, using the leg muscles and not the back muscles. And yet I’ve received many a heavy box from UPS without a warning label of any kind. I’m also considering a lawsuit against the novelist Danielle Steele because her novels are famously “impossible to put down,” are usually well over an inch thick, and come out a couple of times a year. That’s a lot of reading, and it’s a known fact that too much reading causes myopia (heck, John Milton went blind from it), and yet not one of Ms. Steele’s books (so far as I know) has a warning label about too much reading causing eye strain. Ms. Steele is loaded (her Pacific Heights home is right next to a member of Metallica’s) so she’ll probably settle out of court and I can quickly make some pretty good money.

December 17, 1996

Well, our office holiday party just finished. It was at this place called MacArthur Park, a restaurant with a large lobby area that my company rented. E— wasn’t able to come because she had a city council meeting to go to. Because of my injured foot I spent most of the time sitting down instead of milling about. There were these “crab” cakes that tasted kind of like tuna salad—they were definitely stretched. There were also these ribs that were remarkably bland given that MacArthur Park is famous for its ribs. There were also these sautéed mushroom sandwiches, open-faced, which were startlingly good. Finally, there were these half-baked apples with bacon around them that were okay. You’ve never seen such a sober bunch, not in terms of spirits but . . . boy, it’s hard not to commit double-entendres here. Let’s just say that nobody was even one sheet to the wind. Very non-drunk, and therefore non-rude and non-embarrassing, which I like. Still, it’s not quite as festive as when you have a sit-down dinner and people get up and make sentimental, half-clocked, maudlin speeches like at my old work, where people were desperate to eat as much food and drink as much booze on the company’s dime as possible, out of spite. Anyway, I behaved myself as well; that is, I managed to keep from eating so many mushroom sandwiches that I became gassy or hurled or something. The only problem is that now my best suit smells a bit like cigarette & cigar smoke. But I’m back in the office and it’s not even 7:00 p.m. (And what am I doing in the office? That’s a very good question and I’m afraid I have no answer other than I decided to walk home and it’s on the way.)

Undated, ca. 2004

We are up visiting Mom. When we arrived here, I was surprised by two things. First, she was not here to greet us—turns out she’d been called in to work at the hospital. Second, there was something really wrong with S— [her cat]. His entire body was trembling, and he struggled to stand up. There was a frightening jerkiness to his movements, like early Hollywood animatronics or first-generation CGI. He had a wild, feral look in his eyes and was emitting low, metallic yowls. He was like half cat, half Terminator, and it seemed he could be capable of anything.

E— led the kids to safety while I called Mom at work. She told me S— had been recently diagnosed as diabetic and put on new medication, and given the crisis she’d come right home. In the meantime I called the veterinarian, who determined that the cat’s blood sugar had crashed and that he probably wouldn’t survive the trip to her clinic. She told me to try rubbing corn syrup into the cat’s gums with a Q-tip. It was his only chance, she advised. Corn syrup? Seriously?

Hoo boy. This wasn’t going to be easy because as you know, S— is a bit of a tricky cat to begin with, having that strange tendency to occasionally turn on you. Like, he’ll be contentedly sitting in your lap, relaxed as could be, and then will suddenly try to bite you. And that’s when he’s behaving normally, not when he’s having a life-threatening blood sugar issue. Heck, if my own life were in danger I might try to bite people, too.

I set out the Q-tips, poured corn syrup from the jug into the cap, and steeled myself for the ordeal.

The beast must have known that his life was in danger but without understanding why. His reaction was to mount a strong defense. In other words, he was in full kill mode. As I approached him, he lunged, narrowly missing, his teeth snapping audibly together. “Aren’t you afraid he’ll bite you?” E— asked. Um, yeah. Of course.

I wrestled the poor creature onto my lap, trying to pin down his windmilling hind legs. S— was making good headway on my forearms with his barbed-wire claws. My base impulse was to hurl him away from me, but with great resolve I stayed at it. When I was able to overpower the animal and hold him still, I felt less panicky. A human, I reminded himself, is stronger than a cat.

A long moment passed, S— straining uselessly. Still pinning him down, I inspected the deep scratches he’d made on my arms and considered the etymology of “cat-o’-nine-tails.” Eventually S—, exhausted, went limp and I set about rubbing the corn syrup into his gums with the Q-tip. I worked quickly, carefully pulling back his lips with one hand and working the Q-tip with the other.

Suddenly the stricken creature came back to life, as though hit with a thousand volts, snarling and trying again to bite his tormentor. I got a good grip on his body. I could feel the knobby bones across his back. His front legs were a blur as he flailed, and I jerked myself back to keep my face out of biting range. This attack, too, petered out and he slumped again. I pried his jaws open and rubbed some more syrup in. He still trembled, and periodically he weakly tried to bite, but he was too weak to fight anymore. Eventually, amazingly, as I continued rubbing the syrup into his upper and lower gums, the treatment began to work. S—’s shaking stopped, and in time he seemed to relax. By the time Mom arrived, he seemed stable, and he survived the trip to the animal hospital. They gave him some basic treatment and now he’s sound as a pound. It seems he had developed some kind of fleeting diabetes, and when it went away, the medication he was still on messed up his (now non-diabetic) blood sugar. Wacky!

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