50 Rules for Being a Good Man

My father, who taught me much of what I know about being a good man.

The internet is filled with rules that men should follow. Unfortunately, many of them are loaded frivolous and/or misogynistic bullshit. And, generally, these lists seem to focus on being a “real” man, rather than a good one. So, I decided to make up my own. Will following this list will make a good man? Probably not, but it will allow you to fake it until you make it. And, that’s a good place to start.

  1. Treat everyone with respect. Everyone.
  2. Remember that there are times to work hard and times to work smart. Know which is which.
  3. Do the right thing. Not for a reward, but because it’s the right thing to do.
  4. Be yourself and never let anyone shame you for it.
  5. As Mick and Keith said, “You can’t always get what you want. But, if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”
  6. Never let becoming rich and famous be your end goal. 
  7. Follow your bliss. But, understand that your bliss doesn’t have to be what you do for a living. So find value in your work, whatever it is.
  8. Never be afraid to cry. Feeling your feelings isn’t weak, it’s healthy. 
  9. No man is an island. You need a community to get through this life.
  10. Don’t talk about things of which you’re ignorant.
  11. Don’t live in the past. Embrace, honor it, learn from it. But, don’t live in it.
  12. Read. A lot. Good stuff, not trash. And, make sure that more than half is fiction.
  13. Never be afraid to make a mistake.
  14. Never be afraid to apologize for a mistake.
  15. Learn the art of forgiveness. Holding a grudge is a waste of energy.
  16. Don’t avoid conflict. But, don’t seek it out, either. When it happens, stand up and deal with it.
  17. A gift for a significant other doesn’t have to be expensive. There is truth in the saying, “It’s the thought that counts.”
  18. If a gift for a significant other does have to be expensive, find a different significant other.
  19. Learn from your reverses.
  20. Always be honest. But, understand that some truths are best kept to yourself.
  21. Stand up for the vulnerable.
  22. Never, ever punch down
  23. Look for the beauty in the world.
  24. Be a man of your word. If you say you’ll do something, do it. Even when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to.
  25. Always break up with a significant other in person. Anything else is cowardly.
  26. A real man lets a woman walk wherever she damn well pleases. If it happens to be on the side nearest the street, he’s okay with that.
  27. Be prepared for a bluff to be called.
  28. The Golden Rule is a pretty good one to live by.
  29. If you’re not sure your shirt is clean, it’s dirty. Change it.
  30. Remember that appearance is not an alternative for substance.
  31. When making a decision, choose a course of action and commit to it. No one likes a ditherer.
  32. Most people won’t find your hobbies anywhere near as interesting as you do, so don’t bore them. Instead, find that person who loves 19th century romantic poetry as much as you do and geek out to your heart’s content.
  33. Take care of yourself. And, by “take care of yourself”, I mean, learn to cook, clean, and do your own laundry.
  34. Be kind for no reason.
  35. Live the life you want to live, not the one your parents/grandparents/friends want for you.
  36. Never tip less than 20%, no matter how bad the service may be.
  37. Having one very close friend is infinitely better than having a hundred acquaintances.
  38. Whenever possible, opt for quality over price.
  39. Always be faithful to a significant other. Even if you think they’re not being faithful to you.
  40. Know how to change a tire. AAA isn’t always available.
  41. There are plenty of stupid questions. But, the most stupid is the one you don’t ask.
  42. You get a limited amount of time on this earth. Use it to your best advantage.
  43. When possible, do the unpleasant things when you think of them. If you put them off, they won’t get done.
  44. Be grateful.
  45. If you didn’t do the work, don’t take the credit.
  46. Do the work.
  47. Spend time with old people and kids. You can learn a lot from both.
  48. It’s never too late to change.
  49. A good plan executed now is always better than a perfect plan executed later. (paraphrased of George S. Patton)
  50. Know the person you want to be remembered as and work to be that person every day.

Advent is Upon Us

Lifted from Homebrewed Christianity

Oh, dear god,
the season I  dread most
has arrived in full force and
I’m not sure I’ll
make it till the Eve,
or even the eve of the Eve, 
without punching someone
in the throat.

Why? Because it’s Advent,
that time of already and not yet,
and the theology nerds
won’t shut up,
prattling on like
nattering nabobs of
negativism, 
sublimely unaware that
people don’t like it when you
shit on their fun.

What, pray tell, is the draw
of this liturgical season? 
I’m told it’s a time of
expectant waiting. 
Waiting for what?
Short days and
shitty weather? 
I think I’ll pass. 
Even Lent, the
bummer before summer,
holds the promise of
a bit of warmth 
after it passes.

Also, I keep hearing that
Advent is a time of
deep reflection.
Seriously? If I reflect deeply
(or even shallowly)
I might have to look
a feeling
in the face.
Who the hell wants to do that?

You people don’t seem
to understand that 
I don’t want to
wait,
or think,
or do
anything with
a lick of 
substance.

What I want is to
eat and drink too much,
sing dreadful ditties like
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or
“Santa Buddy”,
and spend money
I don’t have
to distract myself
from the massive hole
in my soul. 

Stop trying to
make me think or
have encounters that hold
any depth whatsoever.
I’m begging you, please,
allow me to sail thru life and
never,
ever,
dig deeper than the 
thin crust of abject materialism
and selfishness that is
the American Way.





An American Sonnet of My Own

I haven’t watched a single basketball
game since you left me on that Tuesday too many
years ago because that was where we would
connect when the chasm between us yawned wider than
the Grand Canyon and neither of us was
willing to reach out to the other one and one
bad call would bridge the gap and the bad blood
would wash away like pollen in a thunderstorm
and everything would be good between us again
and I wouldn’t feel like I’d let you down
again like I had all those other times before
when you looked at me like you were ashamed
for anyone to know we were from same blood
that I sprang from your loins just to irk you.

F*ck That Noise

 

 Well, beloved, conservatives showed us just what they think of women this past Saturday. Despite what should have a damning list of accusations of sexual misconduct, up to and including sexual assault, the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court anyway. I don’t know about you, but right now, I can’t get Padme Amidala’s comment from “The Phantom Menace” out my head. You know, when Palpatine declares himself emperor and she says, “So this is how liberty dies . . . with thunderous applause.” It fits, doesn’t it? Well, except for the thunderous applause bit because the Senate’s action was met with howls of outrage from decent human beings that rivaled the applause from Lord Dampnut’s vile supporters.

   To say this is a disheartening time is an understatement akin to calling World War I “a slight  kerfuffle”. Isn’t enough that our president is a semi-sentient sweet potato with a hair piece who regularly embarrasses us on the national stage? I guess not, since this repulsive asswipe, along with his reptilian henchmen Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, are doing their level best to destroy our republic. God damn it.

     By now, you’ve probably seen some memes and posts telling you not to get mad, not to yell at the people responsible for Saturday’s debacle, but to get out and vote. Fuck that noise. I mean, yes, get out and vote. But, don’t stop there. Get mad. Get loud. Get crude. Let those despicable motherfuckers know exactly what you think of them. And, not just the ones in the Senate who voted to put that loathsome frat-boy son-of-a-bitch on the Supreme Court, but every hateful twat who backed them and are now crowing with delight at his appointment.

Or, to quote the ever-eloquent Henry Rollins:

“This is not a time to be dismayed, this is punk rock time. This is what Joe Strummer trained you for.”

So, marinate in your fury. Let it soak into your bones and become a part of your very being. Because we’re in a fight for the soul of our nation and it’s not going to be easy or short. It will be a long, hard slog and we’ll need to pull energy and inspiration from places that might make us uncomfortable. But, the alternative is to let that tangerine nutsack and his pals eviscerate democracy and inflict damage that will decades to repair. And, that’s if it can be fixed at all.

     Now, some people will say this is bad advice, that it’s divisive or harmful to your soul/mental health. Bullshit. What we’re feeling is righteous anger and using it to bring desperately needed change is no different than Jesus kicking over tables and using a whip on the money changers in the Temple. Understand that the people who tell you this shit are the ideological descendants of the white moderates who vexed Martin Luther King so much in his fight for civil rights and they are more harmful than the avowed racists and misogynists cheering so loudly right now. So, like I said earlier, Fuck. That. Noise.

Time to Man Up, Fellows

It’s not a fun time to be a man right now, what with all the terrible behavior being revealed by #MeToo. It’s even worse if you understand that we deserve all those bad feelings and more. So. Much. More. We deserve it because we’ve behaved horribly, whether we’ve perpetrated the awfulness ourselves or told victims we don’t care about what’s happened to them.
Last week, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford went before the Senate Judicial committee to testify about her allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when she was 15 and he was 17. The whole thing was an avalanche of awfulness that included from a fairly detailed recounting of a sexual assault, a bunch of old men cowardly hiding behind the skirts of a woman brought in to do their dirty work and, finally, the realization that the Republican members of the Judicial committee and a not-insignificant portion of Americans don’t really care that a man who may well have committed a sexual assault could be elevated to the highest court in the land.
Right about now, you may be thinking, “What does this have to do with me? I don’t know anyone who’s been sexually assaulted/harassed.” I hate to break it to you, but you’re wrong. You do, they’re just not willing to tell you about it. And, I’m not talking about acquaintances, either. I mean, spouses, children, other family members, close friends, etc.  Think about that for a minute. People who are as close to you as it is possible to be are dealing with awful, demeaning, traumatic experiences and they’ve never mentioned it to you. Why do you think that might be?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because you’ve given them a good reason not to. Now, you’re probably thinking, “What!? How did I do that?” You did it when asked what a rape victim was wearing/how much she had to drink beforehand/what she was doing in that part of town in the first place. You did it when you said someone who reported that they’d been assaulted was a liar because they waited (sometimes months, sometimes years) before coming forward. You did it when you said that someone telling the story of how they’d been assaulted had an agenda, that they were out to smear a good man’s name. You did it when you asked tried to dismiss victims by intimating that false accusations of sexual assault were a bigger problem than assault itself. Basically, you did by being a douche bag. Instead of wondering why they don’t trust you, you should be wondering why they continue to allow you into their life at all.
Like I said in the opening sentence, it’s not a fun time to be a man right now. But, know this: the way you’re feeling right now is nothing compared to the way people who have been victimized sexually feel.  It is, at most, a tiny clouded window into what those folks live with every day. And, as a man, you should be looking for ways to lessen that awfulness for them, not doubling down on it so your side “wins”. To put it bluntly, man up and stop being a douche bag.

Any Port in a Storm

You may or may not know that, after an extensive break (about 35 years), I have returned to school for an English degree. This semester, I’m taking a class in writing poetry. The following prose poem is one of my efforts for that class.

Barney Stinson, the living embodiment of Bro Culture.

I could see her lips move, but the words were buried under the avalanche of sound that poured from the speakers like snow down a mountainside. Normally, “Nasty” set my teeth on edge, but in this moment, I loved Ms Jackson because she was drowning out the insipid, inane babblings of the blitzed bottle-blond I was presently trying to talk out of her panties. A stiff dick may not have a conscience, but it can have taste and if I had to listen to this chick for more than a minute, I’d go limp as a dishrag. But, it had been almost a week since I’d had some action, so any port in a storm as the Navy boys over Gulfport like to say.

Off the dance floor and over at the bar, I lost Janet’s assistance and I had to hear her. So, I focused on her impressive rack and kept my eyes on the prize. “What’s your name?” she asked. “Where are you from?” I was ready for this, my lies laid out ahead of time. I told her my name was Charles Chandler, but everyone calls me Chad. That wasn’t a full-dress falsehood; I’d been Chad for as long as I could remember, but I’m an actual Chad, not Charles, and Chandler isn’t even close to my factual last name. I told her I was a lieutenant in the Air Force, stationed at Barksdale/Bossier City but stuck in New Orleans because of maintenance issues. “You’re a pilot?” she asked as her face lit up like Bourbon Street on Fat Tuesday night. I just smiled and ordered us a couple of cocktails. That’s the trick to an effective lie, you know: Never say it yourself, just drop a few hints and let the dunts connect the dots themselves. I’m telling you, it never, ever fails.

5 hours later, I was crawling out of cab in front of the Motel 6 in Metarie where me and 3 buds from my admin clerk class at the base back in Biloxi had rented a room for the holiday weekend. The sun was coming up and I was going down after a long, hard night. And, not long and hard in the good way, either. The bitch kept wanting to talk, acted like this was something besides a somewhat sleazy one-night stand. Yeah, I said sleazy. It’s not lost on me that I’m a degenerate, depraved douche bag. And, if I’m being honest, most morning afters I feel like I need a shower, even though there’s not enough water in the world to ever really feel clean again. But, the only other option is to get real, connect, feel something. And, I’m way too broken on the inside for anything other than slumming. Any port in a storm as the Navy boys over in Gulfport like to say.

Go Home GQ, You’re Drunk

 

Screw GQ. Read ’em all

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a literature major and if I’ve learned anything in my study of belles-letters, it’s that fiction hasn’t fared very well in this postmodern world. I don’t mean quality-wise; there’s plenty of fiction out there that holds its own with Hemingway, Hurston, or Fitzgerald. For example, Margaret Atwood tackles Christian theonomy in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses gave us an unflinching look at Islam. Not to be outdone, Neil Gaiman showed us what we really worship in his novel, American Gods. No, beloved, when it comes to fiction, the quality is as good as it ever was. It’s fiction’s reputation that’s taken a hit.

It seems to me that most people view nonfiction as “serious” reading, while fiction is strictly for fun. I have more than one friend who share the nonfiction works they’re reading as deep and important, while fiction is reserved for “beach reads”. I’ve long thought this was a discomfiting trend and GQ magazine recently provided more evidence of that when they published an article titled “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read”.

Now, if you’re thinking that GQ isn’t exactly a bastion of literary criticism, you’re right. It’s basically the male version of Cosmopolitan and deals mostly with fashion, style, and culture for men. As a rule, I pay more attention to Oprah’s Book Club than I do GQ when it comes to literature. But, this article caught my attention because, well, it’s a list of books that we’re told don’t have to read and anytime I see someone discouraging reading in any form, I get a little miffed.

Lately, I’ve been trying to avoid things that get my blood pressure up, like political discussions, internet arguments, and, well, stupid lists about not reading certain books. But, against my better judgement, I looked it up. It was worse than I thought. Not only did these yahoos include the Bible (it is the most influential book in history. That’s true whether you like it or not), they also included books like, Catcher in the RyeAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Lord of the Rings. Really? In a world where crap like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray exists, why would you steer people away from good writing?

I noticed two things while perusing this list: First, it was very heavy on old, white guys. As in, the books deemed unworthy of reading were written by white men. And, when I “heavy”, I mean “every book”. And, lest you think I’m one of those “Don’t-like-minority” types, I firmly believe we don’t hear from those minority voices nearly as much as we should. But, reading those authors shouldn’t mean tossing out the classics.

Second, one of the chief complaints about the works on the “Don’t bother” list was that they weren’t entertaining enough. I get that being entertaining is important because people tend not to read books that aren’t entertaining. I mean, when’s the last time you anything by Henry James? But, being entertaining isn’t the only thing. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series is very entertaining, but it doesn’t break new ground, transform literature or do any of the other things the books on this list have done.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the list is that it was compiled by authors. And, all too often, those authors didn’t seem to grasp the finer points of these works. This is evidence of another disturbing trend I’ve noticed: most Americans read fiction the way an evangelical fundamentalist reads the Bible: literally and without searching for any deeper meaning. That is not a good thing.

Why is that a bad thing, you ask? Well, my friends, we live in a world that is chock full of things that are extremely hard to talk about. That is partly because, as much as we claim to prize plain-spokenness, differing ideas uttered in a plain-spoken way tends to make us angry. Especially when it’s applied to something we’re sensitive about. And, that’s where fiction comes in. Because fiction is an excellent way to talk about the things that we can’t tackle head on. Really, fiction is the new mythology, allowing us to explore and express who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. If we avail ourselves of this amazing device, we might even get there without destroying ourselves in the process. I’m not holding my breath, though.

The Tone Police

The Tone Police in action

I think it’s safe to say that, right now, public discourse isn’t at it’s loftiest point in our history. Up until last week, I told myself that things could certainly be worse, saying “Hey, no one’s taken a stick to a colleague on the Senate floor while a compatriot pulled a pistol to keep everyone else at bay. That’s something, right?” But, I’m not sure I can hold onto that slim strand of hope much longer.

Last Thursday, a man with a long-standing grudge against Annapolis, Maryland’s Capital Gazette newspaper walked into their office and opened fire on the staff, killing five and wounding two. You might be wondering why I would bring up mass murder in a discussion about public discourse. I get that, killing a whole slew of people in one go is pretty much the opposite of talking. In another world, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to bring up mass murder in a discussion about the community’s rhetoric. But, we don’t live in another world, we live in the “Trump-side Down“: A world where a thrice-divorced reality show huckster who said he’s never felt the need to ask God’s forgiveness and has paid hush money to an adult film actress over an affair enjoys massive support from evangelical Christians that they elect to the highest office in the land. Meanwhile, a devoted husband and father who has repeatedly demonstrated his faith through his actions is reviled by these same people as a “secret Muslim” who is mounting an assault on Christianity. Y’all know these folks make Jesus cry, right?

If the way Obama was treated while 45 is embraced isn’t enough proof that we live in a parallel universe  where everything is twisted and warped, check this out. Thursday evening, on AC360, Anderson Cooper replayed a previously taped interview with some of the survivors of the shooting. In it, reporter Selene San Felice said, “But I’m gonna need more than a couple days of news coverage and some thoughts and prayers because it’s — our whole lives have been shattered. And so thanks for your prayers, but I couldn’t give a fuck about them if there’s nothing else.” Whether by mistake or by design, they didn’t bother to censor San Felice and the expletive came thru loud and clear. In the normal world, the only way to respond to that is the way Cooper did: with sympathy and grace. However, in the “Trump-side Down”, it seems that tone-policing is an appropriate response.

I say that because, Friday morning, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl) tweeted:

“Sign of our times… the F word is now routinely used in news stories, tweets, etc. It’s not even F*** anymore. Who made that decision?

Wow. Let me see if I understand what’s being said here: In the aftermath of a mass shooting that left five people dead and 2 wounded, Senator Waterboy is upset by the “F word”? I don’t know about you guys, but I can think of a lot of words that are worse than “fuck”, like murder, racism, famine and a whole bunch more. But, I suppose it is nice to know where Marco’s priorities lie.

Now, the cynic in me thinks that this really about all Rubio can say,  what with bought and paid for by the NRA. But, my idealistic side says that, rather than just making snarky comments, I should try and look at things from Marco’s point of view. I don’t know, maybe “F***” is worse than I think. So, let’s do a little research, shall we?

As a word, “fuck” has been around for a long time. The first attested usage dates to 1475 in a poem by some English friars (it does appear earlier in a couple of names). It is probably a cognate of some German words that have a sexual connotation. Or, it may derive from an Old French word that means “to fuck”. Originally, it referred only to having sex and it’s hard to tell when it lost that happy association and picked up some of the more unpleasant and offensive meanings it has today. But, even with all those negative associations, when stacked up against violent death, bigotry, and hunger, “fuck” just doesn’t seem that bad to me.

Of course, Rubio isn’t the only person to use this approach. All of our social media feeds are full of “Trumpies” calling for civility now that everyone else has had enough of their crap and started giving it back. Sorry snowflakes, that genie is out of the bottle and it ain’t going back in. Deal with it.

 

Family Matters

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, mostly because I’ve been busy with school. Also, I’ve been writing for a friend’s site (The Betafiles. You should check it out.) But, I’ve come to realize I shouldn’t neglect my own little corner of the web, so I’m going to begin sharing the things I write for the The Betafiles here. Starting with this piece.

As you may have noticed over the last few days, it’s been rather difficult to turn on a news program without hearing about the White House’s latest policy debacle, the separation of families attempting to cross our southern border. This was a fairly big story before, but it really came to dominate the headlines last Thursday when Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible to justify the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, setting off a crapstorm of negative press coverage.

Things haven’t gone well for Sessions in the wake of that comment, as people across the country have called him out about it. Even his own United Methodist Church (Sessions is a member) has condemned both the policy and the AG’s statement, saying “To argue that these policies are consistent with Christian teaching is unsound, a flawed interpretation, and a shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel.” So, the UMC, a group that has been locked in a fractious debate over the status of people who are LGBTQ+ for years, thought one of their own member’s policy/statement was so bad it was worth putting all that aside and coming together to denounce it? Oh, I’ll bet that stings.

It’s not just Sessions who’s feeling the heat, though; the entire Trump administration is catching it. Of course, that’s due in part to their total ineptitude when it comes to governing. And, never has their incompetence been clearer than in the responses from various administration officials. Over the weekend, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” Yet, back in May, chief of staff John Kelly said that tearing kids away from their parents would be a “tough deterrent” and wouldn’t call it cruel. And, the president himself has gone on record multiple times about the policy, usually to blame Democrats for this heinous practice. Of course, I’ve already told you about Sessions’ views on the subject. And, in line with her boss and the AG, Mouth of Sauron White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “It’s the law, and that’s what the law states.” Compared to these people, the Keystone Kops are the picture of competence.

On-air personalities at Fox News (aka Department of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda) have been working hard to counter all the bad press and “inform” us about the “reality” of the situation. Tucker Carlson claims that public outrage over the policy has been ginned up by “the ruling elite” to accelerate “the collapse of the American family”. Co-host of Fox and Friends and ventriloquist-dummy-come-to-life Steve Doocy said that we’re not seeing concentration camps with cages for children, but “great, big warehouse facility where they built walls out of chain link fences.” And, last but certainly not least, Laura Ingraham told us that these detention centers “are essentially summer camps”. While the comments from Doocy and Ingraham are mind-numbingly stupid, they were a welcome change from Carlson’s dog-whistle-racism-conspiracy-theory-bs. Something we hear all too often from the fine folks at Fox.

I will end this: One of the goals of this zero-tolerance policy (the brainchild of human-rat hybrid Stephen Miller) is reducing the number of people seeking asylum. And, it’s working. I heard a news report this morning about an interview with a Honduran woman at the border who was reconsidering her decision to attempt a crossing and request asylum. Think about that for a moment: our government has created an environment that is less attractive than the horrific violence occurring in her homeland. So, have we made America great again? Because I don’t think I can’t take much more of this “winning”.

***Update: Since I wrote this article, Lord Dampnut has signed an executive order (after swearing the issue couldn’t be dealt with in that manner multiple times) that will end family separation of people caught improperly crossing the border. Of course, it doesn’t reverse the idiotic zero-tolerance policy that caused the mess; that will remain in force. No, this order means that all adults crossing illegally will still be prosecuted, but they’re children won’t ripped away from them. So, instead of infants and toddlers held sans parents in “tender age detention centers”, we’ll have whole families in jail together. The sad thing is, this is an improvement.

Family Reunion

Donnie sat on the edge of the bed in nothing but his underwear and bright, white t-shirt. He held a pair of socks, his shoes on the floor between his feet. The pants his mother had picked out lay on the bed beside him, while a shirt hung on the door of his closet. Normally, his mother didn’t pick out his clothes; he was a grown man who had served in Iraq, after all. But, today? Today was special. Donnie knew she considered it his reintroduction to the “normal” world and would do whatever she felt was necessary to make sure things went “right”. The idea of this filled him with dread because he also knew what this meant for his day.

He sat there, holding his socks, trying to find the motivation to get dressed. “Family

fuckin’ reunion,” he muttered. “I’d rather take a beatin’ than do this.” Like all good southern

boys, Donnie loved his family. But, he felt calling his mother’s clan “batshit crazy” wasn’t

very nice to batshit. He wasn’t sure he was up to dealing with them after all he’d been

through.

As he sat there, his anxiety slowly building, his mother stuck her head in the door. “Good lord, Donnie, why aren’t you dressed yet? We got to leave in fifteen minutes!”

Her admonition broke the trance he’d slipped into and he pulled his socks on. “I know, Mama. I’m gettin’ there.” He sighed. “Don’t worry, I’ll be ready in plenty of time.”

“You better be. I am not about to get there late and listen to your Aunt Dottie run her mouth about my lack of punctuality.” Without another word, she went off to check on some other task that demanded her attention, lest the precious family honor be impugned. She left the door standing open.

Donnie slid on his pants and threaded the belt through the loops. He walked over to the closet and put on his shirt. As he buttoned it, his father appeared in the door. “You doin’ okay?”

“Not really. I’m nervous as hell. This is the first time I’ve been around Mama’s family since…well, you know.”

His dad stepped on into the room. “Yeah, I know it’s a lot. If it gets to be too much, just say the word and we’ll get you out of there.” His dad reached out and squeezed his uninjured shoulder, “Hell, for that matter, you don’t even have to go.”

“No,” Donnie said. “I’ll be alright. Hell, I made it through two tours in Iraq. How hard can this be?”

His dad said, “You know, I told myself something similar after I got back from Vietnam. Looked in the mirror and said, ‘Okay, you survived the jungle and the VC. You can survive an afternoon with your wife’s family.’”

Donnie looked at him. “And?”

His dad chuckled, “About halfway through, I was thinkin’ Vietnam wadn’t that bad.”

As they shared a laugh, Mary returned. “Thomas, why are you in here, distractin’ him? Didn’t I ask you get my tomato box down to put all the food in?” Before he could answer, she noticed Donnie’s shirt. “What is that you’re wearin’?”

“Um, I think it’s a shirt.” His dad stifled a laugh.

“Don’t get smart with me, mister. That is not the one I laid out, so why are you wearin’ it?”

“Because I don’t like the one you laid out.”

“You don’t like the one I laid out?” she repeated. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Well, for one thing, the sleeves come down over my hands. It makes me look like a kid wearin’ his big brother’s hand-me-downs.”

She huffed, ruffling her bangs as she did whenever she was unhappy. “I bought that shirt specifically for this occasion. You are going to wear it.”

“No.”

“Excuse me?” Her disbelief at his rebellion was palpable.

“I. Am. Not. Wearin’. That. Shirt. End of story.”

Before the situation spiraled further out of control, Thomas stepped between them. “Mary, he’s an adult. He can decide for himself what to wear.” She opened her mouth as if to say something but didn’t. He turned to Donnie. “And, you. Is that anyway to talk to your mother?”

Donnie shook his head, sheepishly. “No sir, it’s not. I’m sorry, Mama.” Concealing his distaste at giving in, he said, “Give me a minute and I’ll change.”

She waved dismissively. “No, your daddy’s right, you’re a grown man. You can dress yourself.”

Crisis averted, Thomas gently guided his wife through the bedroom door. He looked back over his shoulder at Donnie and said, “Come on, boy. Help me load up all this food.” With a twinkle in his eye, he added, “We wouldn’t want to be late and give your Aunt Dottie a chance to lecture your mother about bein’ on time.”

__________________________

 

Though he wouldn’t have believed it thirty minutes earlier, Donnie was relieved to have arrived at the church after stopping to pick up his grandmother. While Donnie thought the world of his Granny, she was extremely hard of hearing and often didn’t wear her hearing aids. And, because his mother was physically incapable of not carrying on a conversation when anyone was in her presence, he had spent the last half hour listening to his mother and grandmother make inane small talk at ridiculous volumes.

He wasn’t sure the car had completely stopped when he unbuckled his seat belt and clambered out. Not the first time since the day began, he thought, Why did this thing have to be at a damn church. My god, I need a drink. He had thought about bringing some liquor with him, but that had proved impossible with his mom hovering over him nervously. He had almost reached the door when his mother spoke.

“Stop right there, mister. We’re goin’ in together. As a family.”

He looked back and realized he’d left the rest of them behind. Granny must have trouble getting out of the car, he thought. In addition to her hearing issues, his grandmother was in dire need of a hip replacement; something she refused to address. He remembered a conversation they’d had about the matter. They’d been sitting in her living room not long after he’d gotten out the medical center at Camp Lejuene. He had noticed her favoring her left leg earlier and asked, “Why are you limpin’, Granny?

She was working on a quilt for the latest grandchild and said without looking up, “The doctors say I need a new hip.”

He nodded. “You gonna do it?”

“Nope.”

That surprised him. “No? Why not?”

Still working, she said, “Because I’m not going back in that hospital again.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Son, that’s major surgery and the recovery ain’t easy if you’re young. I think we both know I’m way past “young”. Besides, every time I’ve ever been in that place, the nurses won’t let me alone, always poking and prodding and wakin’ me up for all sorts of nonsense when the best thing I could be doin’ is restin’.” She looked up from her sewing and said, “You know as well as I do that the hospital is no place for sick people.”

While he remembered all this, his family caught up to him. His mother stopped in front of him and began fussing with his clothes. “There. You look very nice. Even if you’re not wearing the clothes I picked out specifically for this occasion.”

Donnie had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last time he heard about that. “Mama–”, he started, but his dad caught his eye and mouthed, “Let it go.” Donnie got the message.

“What?” his mother asked.

“Nothin’. It’s not important.”

She looked at him for a moment, puzzled. Then, she shook her head. “Okay, is everybody ready?” When they all nodded, she said, “Let’s go.”

­­­­_____________________________

Donnie sat at a table accompanied only by his mother and grandmother’s pocketbooks. In the forty-five minutes since they’d walked in the door, there had been maybe five or ten words spoken to him. After he’d brought three conversations to a screeching halt solely by his presence, he gave up and started back to the family’s table. As he walked, he noticed a strange phenomenon: whenever he approached a group, people moved away from him like magnets repelling each other. It irritated him, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it. For a few minutes, he toyed with the idea of pretending to have a psychotic break. While falling on the floor, spouting gibberish and foaming at the mouth — not the way it would’ve happened for him, but no one here would know that — might have been fun, his mother would be mortified. Even though he would’ve gotten a perverse satisfaction out of that, the last thing he wanted was to hurt her.

Right about then, he noticed his cousin walking across the room. Steve had been his closest companion growing up, but these days they hardly spoke. That was partly because his cousin thought Fox News was run by communists, preferring instead to get his news from Alex Jones InfoWars. The other part was that the only thing Steve wanted to talk about was his membership in a Civil War reenactment group, the 70th North Carolina Regiment. Not long after Donnie had gotten back from Iraq, Steve had cornered him at the family Christmas gathering and said that he kind of understood what Donnie had been through because he’d done the battle reenactment at Bentonville the previous March. Yeah, Donnie thought, playing soldier thirty minutes down the road is exactly like being 6000 miles from home with a thousand screaming Hajis out for your blood. He was afraid another dose of stupidity might be more than he could stand and prayed his cousin would pass him by. After a second or two, Donnie realized that wasn’t going to happen. Shit, he thought as his chin dropped to his chest.

Steve pulled up a chair. “Hey, bud. Ain’t seen you in a while. Where you been hidin’ at?”

That caught Donnie off guard. Could it be that he didn’t know what happened? Donnie’s mom had worked hard to keep his condition a secret and, while it didn’t seem to take with anybody else, Steve could be a different story. He knew his cousin would fall for almost anything if the speaker was convincing enough. He decided to stick with the story his mother had put together and feel out the situation.

“I had to go back to Camp Lejeune for a little while to tie up some loose ends, out process, that sort of thing.” He decided to push the envelope a little. “And, I had to go to the VA Hospital over in Durham because I was having some problems from the explosion. That took a while.” He shook his head, “Man, that VA paperwork is a bitch.”

Steve nodded. “Yeah, that whole situation is fucked up. God damn government, man.”

Holy shit, Donnie thought, Am I really pulling this off? Just be cool and stick with your story. Steve has the attention span of a gnat. Any second now, he’ll yell, “SQUIRREL!” and take off. You can do this, man. Just. Be. Cool.

He was beginning to settle down when he saw his aunt Vicki heading their way. Oh god, he thought, what’s it going to be today, her standard anti-vaxx bullshit or something truly weird like, ‘chemicals in our water are turning our kids gay’? He braced himself accordingly, but was hit from an unexpected direction when Steve blurted out, “So, did you go crazy or what?”

Vicki heard him and slapped the back of his head, knocking his cap off. “Damn it, Steve! We told you not to ask that.”

Steve picked up his hat. “Fuck, Aunt Vicki! That hurt.” He snapped it right side out and shoved it back on his head. “I don’t know what you’re so mad about. It ain’t my fault I’m the only one with the balls to ask the thing we’re all wonderin’ about.”

She hit him again. “Watch your damn language, boy. This is the Lord’s house. Even if we are in the basement.”

Donnie, realizing he had not pulled it off, said, “It’s okay, Aunt Vicki. It was bound to come out sooner or later.” He sighed. “No, Steve, I didn’t ‘go crazy’. I’ve got PTSD because of what happened during my last tour Iraq. A couple of months ago, I had a really bad flashback and had to go the hospital for a while.” As he spoke, Donnie saw Steve’s mom walking over. He knew his Aunt Nina harbored no illusions about her son’s intelligence. But, let someone else bad mouth her boy and she turned into a mother bear protecting her cub. Oh, this’ll be good, he thought.

“Vicki, what the hell do you mean, smacking my son around like that?” When Nina was angry, she had an unconscious habit of cocking her left hip and resting her hand on it. When she was really mad, she waved the other hand around and her finger usually wound up an inch or so from the face whoever had incurred her wrath. And, whenever she did it, it was all Donnie could do not to laugh. This time was no different and he had to turn away to hide the smile he knew would only make things worse.

His Aunt Vicki, veteran of a thousand clashes with her older sister, was no shrinking violet and didn’t back down. “Because your idiot son point-blank asked Donnie if he went crazy, that’s why! Even after we all told him keep his damn mouth shut.” Vicki crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back, satisfied.

Nina gave Steve a look that Donnie thought could curdle milk and his cousin visibly wilted. Donnie knew her disapproval it didn’t have anything to do with an injury to his feelings: Nina was angry because her son had screwed up in front of her sister and made her look bad. There were a number of sins in his mother’s family and one of the worst was losing face in front of a sibling. You never wanted to be in that situation, because whoever saw it would make sure everyone else knew. Also, your mistake would be the topic of conversation at every family gathering until someone else screwed up.

Nina squared up with her taller sister. “Him bein’ dumb as a stump ain’t a reason for you to beat the shit out of him. If you got a problem with my son, you talk to me and I’ll handle it.”

Just then, Donnie noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head to see his mother storming out of the kitchen, trailed by his Aunt Dottie and realized things were about to go from bad to worse. Dottie was the oldest of the sisters and was, Donnie thought, the foremost practitioner of the family creed. She constantly criticized her sisters: everything from their choice of mate, the way they kept house, the way they raised their children or how they appeared in public was fair game in her eyes. He was sure that she was never happier than when she was pointing out a fault in one of her siblings. Look at that smug expression, he thought. Three for the price of one? She must be loving this.

His mother approached the table where he sat. “What in the world is goin’ on out here?” She blew her bangs. “We could hear your racket all the way in the kitchen.”

Nina waved a hand and said, “Oh, Steve said somethin’ a little ignorant to Donnie and Vicki thought that gave her permission to beat him up.”

Donnie watched the color drain out of his mother’s face as she realized all her carefully laid plans to conceal his illness were sunk. Dottie saw her opening and seized it. “What did he say?” she asked sweetly.

Now, it was Nina’s turn to blanch. She hemmed and hawed a bit, before Vicki spoke for her. “I’ll tell you what he said. He asked Donnie if he went crazy.”

Dottie gasped — unconvincingly Donnie thought — and shook her head. “Oh, Stevie”, she said. “Why would you do that?”

Everyone turned to look at Dottie, as if to say, “What the hell?” Except for his mother. Donnie saw her staring at Steve and he could feel her ire growing exponentially. She stood there, not saying a word, her indignation taking on a life of its own. As he watched, things telescoped down to just him, his mother and his cousin. He could hear his aunts arguing, but it was muffled, like he was underwater. His mother, however, gave no indication that anyone else in that room existed except for Steve. Everything was in slow motion, like they were moving through molasses. He could tell when she snapped. He thought he should try and stop her. But, before thought could become action, she reached out and slapped Steve hard across the face, saying “You little son-of-a-bitch!”. Things went downhill from there.

_________________________________

The ride home passed in silence until Donnie’ grandmother said, “Well, that was interestin’.”

“Interestin’!?” Mary snapped. “Mama, we can’t ever show our faces in that church again. I don’t think ‘interestin’’ is the word I’d use to describe what just happened.” She turned back to face the windshield. “A fiasco is what it was.”

His grandmother sighed. “Mary, you worry too much about what people think. Nothin’ got broken and it didn’t actually come to blows, so how bad can it be?”

Thomas spoke up. “Didn’t come to blows, huh? Well, I guess not. Unless you want to count poor old Steve getting the snot slapped out of him by his aunts.”

A laugh burst out of Donnie’s mouth. His mother jerked around and glared at him and he thought, What the hell, might as well go for it. “That was fun, but everythin’ came to a screeching halt when Mama snatched Aunt Dottie’s wig off.”

“That was an accident and you know it, Donnie!”

Even though he saw the red in his mother’s face deepen, he couldn’t help himself, “Maybe so, but it was funny as hell.” His father and grandmother must have agreed, because they laughed, too.

“It was not funny, it was embarrassin’!” She shook her head, “Poor Dottie, she must be mortified.”

“Oh, come on, honey,” Thomas said. “It’s not like nobody knew Dottie wore a wig. When the style and color changes from day to day the way hers does, a wig is the only explanation.”

Mary began to soften a little. “Well, yes. But, that doesn’t mean she wanted the truth of things to come out that way.”

Donnie’s grandmother again. “Mary, I don’t know why you’re so worried about her, after all the times she’s made you look foolish. Personally, I thought it was kind of nice to see the snooty little shit get a taste of her own medicine.”

“Granny!” Donnie was shocked. He’d never heard his grandmother say anything like that before.

She put a hand on his knee. “Son, Dottie is my oldest child and I love her to death, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be realistic about her.” She gave his knee a pat. “And, like your daddy said, it’s not like Dottie wearin’ a wig was a big surprise. Some of ‘em are oh-so obvious.”

“And hilarious,” his father said. “There’s somethin’ about a 65-year-old woman with purple hair that makes people laugh.”

“I love the one she was wearin’ today,” Donnie said. “It makes her look like a stalk of broccoli.” Dottie was a painfully thin woman and the wig in question was sort of a flattened out bouffant. If you looked at that combination in silhouette, the resemblance was unmistakable.

That was more than Mary could take and she burst out laughing. “Oh, my god,” she said. “I didn’t see it until just now, but you’re right. She looked just like a sprig of broccoli.” She wiped her eyes. “I’m gonna have to apologize, though.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Well, of course,” Granny said. “We’ll never be able to get together again if you don’t.”

Donnie sat back, considering the idea of no more family gatherings. The exclusion and ostracism he’d felt most of the day had been awful and he never wanted to experience that again. At the same time, these people were his family and not seeing them again just didn’t feel…right. And of course, the entertainment value of a shindig with his mom’s family was about as good as you were going to find. Anywhere. He realized that, for all his dreading of the occasion, it hadn’t been that bad. And, surprisingly, that he wanted to do it again. Not any time soon, that was for sure. Maybe next year. Yeah, he thought, a year sounded just about right. Silence settled over the car again. Only this time, it was comfortable, satisfied. Donnie leaned his head back closed his eyes and, for the first time that day, relaxed.