Life in the Express Lane

I don't care what other's say, I love
your bagel imperfections.  
Sometimes in life, circumstances necessitate that you broaden your understanding of right vs. wrong.

Another fruitless visit to the supermarket during a hunger pang, my cart overflowing with calories, I decided against the donuts in favor of a bagel, and was feeling especially proud of myself. 

That feeling faded as I neared the checkout aisles and realized only the express lane looked favorable.  I quickly added up the items in my cart.  At least 20 items.  The limit was 12.  Oh well, I thought...five items are the same. I'm not really pushing the maximum.  

So, we're both sort of in the wrong...
Me with exceeding the limit, and
your store with its grammar.  
It's no different than driving 8 miles over the speed limit on the freeway. Everybody does it.  Some people bring their whole weeks worth of groceries through the express lane.  I wasn't doing that!

The lady in front was especially proud of her find.  One pound packages of ground sirloin beef for $3.99.  She had at least 8 packages of the meat.  The fear of a gout attack held me back from exiting the line and exploring the butcher department for more good deals.

I laid out my twenty-two items.  Sure, I didn't need all five different flavors of Jarritos Soda, but at .69 a bottle on sale, it was almost a crime not to try them.  I mean, I'm almost 40, and I've never tried ANY flavor of Jarritos.  That's a cultural crime. There is no food product besides maybe the chili relleno and some people's interpretation of guacamole, that Mexico hasn't perfected.  Sure, they seem stuck on like twenty different ingredients, but they've made lemonade out of what life gave them.

Well...better than Corona.  
I looked at the Hispanic Lime Limón soda, and wondered if it would taste like Sprite, and noticed that a little old man had joined the line behind me.

I loaded the last few items onto the conveyer belt and heard his grumbling.  He almost, almost, uttered actual words of discontent.  Perhaps he was senile, or had irritable bowel syndrome.  

He quickly grabbed the plastic divider bar that keeps our groceries from breeding with each other, and loaded his few items.  A handful of beets, a bunch of celery, and a head of cauliflower.  I think a genetic cross section of our combined items might have made mine healthier and his a little more edible.

I considered letting him cut in front of me in line.  Until I saw his face.  Every wrinkle in his chiseled eighty year old face was tightening in disdain for me.  He greying eyes passed right through me, as if I was a Korean soldier, and he an M2 flamethrowing GI.

I made this walker with tennis balls you brats hit over my
fence when playing wiffle-ball.  
Let it go, old man, the Korean War is over...I thought.  Now you're going to wait behind me.  I hope the checker lady has to do a price check.  

He made some more noises that could've been bile boiling in his gut, or some guttural sound that animals emit when you threaten their territory.  I wondered if it was his odd mix of vegetables that made him so hostile.  What could you possibly make with that concoction of veggies...a broth? A stew? A potion? I wondered if his wife was a witch.

Look, I'm sorry I exceeded the limit by 10 items.  I'm sorry that my digestive system still allows me to eat a bagel and a Mexican soda, and you have to eat alienated veggies. NO. No, I'm not sorry.  You're just a bitter old man.  A man with a radishy personality.  Now you know he WE feel when you drive 48 MPH on the freeway old man.  Yeah, it works both ways.  So stew in your own toxic fumes you judgmental old man. I'm not a bad person.  

I said next to nothing to the checkout lady. She didn't acknowledge that I had exceeded the limit. We passed pleasantries, I quickly paid by debit card, and grabbed my weighted down bag.  Five glass soda bottles was probably pushing its structural integrity.

"Hello Sandra," cooed the old man in voice like Tony Bennett. I turned to see a complete transformation.  The old man had morphed from malignant to genteel.

You get a merit badge for finding a use for radishes.    
"Oh, hello Charles, how are you today?"  Sandra, the middle-aged checker, whom I had failed to really notice in our interaction, brightened up.

I wanted to stay and eavesdrop on their conversation.  Maybe Charles would divulge the purpose behind his odd vegetable choices. Maybe Sandra was an old friend or relative, or maybe Charles was just a regular who had made a connection with a tired employee. I glanced, perhaps a second too long, at the authenticity of their moment.  They showed compassion for each other in the realness of their smiles.

Overstaying my welcome, I exited their scene. Maybe I had misread his face, his gestures, his sounds as displeasure. I was, sort of, in the wrong. What if I was the bad guy? No, not bad...just, inhospitable. I was guilty of the same judgement I thought he was giving me. I looked into my sack of ten extra items and nothing looked that good or that real, and realized I wanted a little more of what they had.






Just Another Crazy Old Substitute Teacher

Jim Pines walked the room with a pretend air of authority, and wondered how much longer he could fake it.

Then he heard it. Swearing and vulgarity were nothing new to Jim Pines. But honest self-assessments from high school kids were.

Please show understanding of the color wheel, hues and
shades in a non-stupid way, please.  
"I'm such a slut....No seriously.  I seriously have a problem. I meet a guy and before I know it, we are having sex," said the dark haired girl in the back of the classroom.  She could've been Latina, but she wasn't.  Amelia, or was it Jessica, Mr. Pines thought, as he fumbled around in the back stock room where the more expensive art supplies were kept.  Why is she divulging this information so freely? Is this a new way for girls to brag? I'm seriously out of touch... He grabbed some large pieces of card stock from a bin and loudly exited the small room.  Amelia (or Jessica's) table quickly changed the subject and laughed--not realizing the teacher was in such close proximity.  Mr. Pines barely glanced their way and gave the card stock to the boy patiently waiting.

The kids liked Mr. Pines enough, and he YouTubed the curriculum enough to be a passable substitute teacher, but he wasn't the real deal, and students played on that notion like they toy with mall cops.  

If teachers wore their certification on their lapel, like a badge, the kid's would've said, "Oh that's nice, Mr. Pines, they let you wear one of those even though you aren't a real teacher."  

I hate chalkboards too, Bart.  
But overall, they weren't that cruel, and he wasn't that naive.  One false move, and the class would probably all be on their cell phones...not planning a bank heist.  Disassociated, not undisciplined, was the correct put-down for this generation.  They just don't care about anything...was the generalization that many other teachers would say.  But, of course, like all great generalizations, that only referred to a minority of the classroom.  Most want order, interesting lessons, and relevant activities...and making that happen, Mr. Pines knew, was easier said than done.  

Mr. Pines was also out of his element. A science teacher by trade, long-term substituting in an art classroom for a teacher on sabbatical.  Sometimes he would talk about colors, like green, and start explaining chloroplasts and how the light spectrum is absorbed into plants, leaving green as the observable light...and look up to see that the class was nodding their heads not in agreement, but in an attempt to stay awake. 

Mr. Pines was hip enough to quickly edit his lesson, and go into an Adam Sandler voice, "You got Chlorophyll Man up there talking about God knows what and all she can talk about is making out with me. I'm here to learn, everybody, not to make out with you. Go on with the chlorophyll."

Some of the kids knew the reference, others were grossed out and more confused then ever.  Mr. Pines, like many substitute teachers, would often amend a boring lesson plan with quips, or jokes.  Sometimes the "real" teacher's lesson, if totally bad, could get tossed for an hour of story telling or discussions. Kids liked to distract Mr. Pines, and Mr. Pines liked to be distracted.

Substituting was, however, on his terms...he could choose a job, or deny it, and he didn't have to teach to any test or set curriculum, or have administration or parents breathing down his back.  Not like they did when he was a real teacher. It (being a real teacher) didn't work out, he'd like to say. But he did miss the influence he had on students, back when he paid dues. The students who said he was the reason they went to college, or helped them understand a difficult concept, or he helped them through a tough year, or made them laugh when things were crappy at home.  That's why he got his teaching license.

So he still had empathy for the students, despite the career misfortunes that had befallen him.

And students, for whatever reason, talk openly to substitute teachers. Like a temporal counselor, a priest in another town, a teacher-confidant, a 1-800 anonymous support group...they share gossip, spill the beans on other teachers, talk crap about coaches, spew venom on clique groups throughout the building, talk about their messed up home life...

"Remember guys, I am a mandatory reporter...anything you say that can be considered abuse, I have to report to the authorities..." He'd often say to protect himself from truths he didn't want to hear.

"Oh yeah...I forget you are a teacher sometimes," they'd say back.

Great. Great. He thought. I'm a joke to them.  

"So do you think I should fight him;...You think he's cheating on me;...Do you think this teacher was in the wrong;...Is my mom mental;..."  All in a day's work of impossible to answer questions from kids trying to avoid the worksheet or activity in front of them.

But at least in art class, the kids were busy making art.  Sure, most of it sucked.  But they were being creative and taking chances that the core classes no longer had room to incorporate with all the testing rigor.  And they chatted while they drew, or painted, or sculpted, and it was a nice change from forcing kids to read out of the textbook, Jim thought.

But it wasn't a health class.

Jim, like any secondary teacher, wasn't naive to the fact that kids were sexually active.  Every year there were a handful of girls getting pregnant, and other couples full on making out in hall ways.  When Jim saw these couples he would make a throw-up sound. It was fun to tease the kids about their "relationships," but deep down, every teacher hopes those couples aren't attempting to procreate.

Jim went back to his roll sheet.  It was Amelia, and she was a freshman.  A FRESHMAN!

Jim thought of his grade school daughters, and the words that they would freely associate with themselves: dancer, artist, princess, softball player... they were just a few short years away from being 15 themselves.  His chest hurt.

It's not your fault. She's not your daughter. She's barely even your student. Let it go. Do you care how many people a 25-year-old woman, or guy, has been with? 

"Yes I do care!" Jim said out loud.  A few curious eyes drifted off their color wheel assignment and towards him..."Sorry, just got a little miffed at this email from the district...go back to your work."

Why do you care? he thought. Because she's 15, and I can understand "not a virgin," but a "slut?" Because it should be meaningful. Because she deserves love.  She probably doesn't know love from home. Because God loves her even she doesn't know it. Because sex is important! Because self-esteem!  

But he knew he couldn't say any of that to her.  He knew her counselor wouldn't say any of that to her. And her parents, whatever they consisted of, had never relayed any of that to her.

The chaos in the room rose to a loud roar as papers were stuffed into backpacks or binders, the bell would soon follow.

"Can we leave early so I can hit the snack shack?" said the constantly hungry teen boy stereotype.

 "Yeah," he barely heard himself reply.

The class left as if their political candidate had just won an election, and Mr. Pines slumped in his chair, and almost immediately started crying. Their lives...their lives are so chaotic and filled with disillusionment and hate and meaninglessness and escapism.  He hadn't even known her name with certainty before the class started.

God help her. I don't know how, but God help her...He uttered between tears.  An 8th period student walked in early, saw the tears on his cheeks, his eyes clenched and quickly shut the door.  He heard through the exterior wall as she said, "Mr. Pines is having a breakdown!"

Haha...he chuckled. A breakdown. Another thing to add to the list.

-----------------------------------------------------

A nice evening at home with his family, a movie and a bowl of popcorn couldn't shake the yucky feeling, though.  So he wrote her a note to stay after class and talk about her grade.  

"What's up Mr. Pines?" Amelia said after he dismissed the class early again.  

"Well, I'm missing the principles of art assignment from you, just wondering when you're going to turn that in..." 

"Oh yeah...it's almost done.  Can I turn it in on Monday." 

"Sure."  

"Is that all?" she asked...itching to get out of the room.  

"Um...well, no.  How are things at home?"  

"What? Fine, I guess.  My mom's a drunk, but that's no newsflash."  

"I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"Whatever...it's no big deal..."  

"Yeah it is...I'm sorry...also...I heard what you were saying the other day at the table..." 

"Hmmm...what was I talking about?" She sheepishly replied, realizing the moment.

"Well, I just wanted to say..."

"Oh gawd...you aren't going to say that Jesus loves me or something...haha...save it.  I'm fine.  I know what I'm doing. Gawd this is soooo embarrassing, can I go now?"  

"Look...I'm sorry...it's just...I'm a parent, and I don't know what your mom may or may not have said, but there's so much to relationships, and..."  

"I made it up...most of it.  I made it up...okay...Can I go now?"

"Look Amelia, I'll be gone next week, and then you'll maybe never see me again as a teacher, but I think you should know..." 

"What...oh Gawd...don't say you love me...that's..." 

"No...don't...don't do that...Don't get defensive. I was just going to say that sex and love are two completely different things. And neither is bad, just that unconditional love is incredibly freeing..."  

"Okay...well awesome talk Teach..."  

"And get that Principles of Art assignment turned in...and...and...Jesus does love you."  

"Okay...what?  Oh, haha...you're funny Mr. Pines." But as she looked closer she realized that Mr. Pines was not, in fact, joking.  

"Oh...uh...bye..." She hesitated, as if knocked off-kilter by a left hook, and then exited the room.  

He heard her through the walls say to her friends who had been waiting outside, "Well that was awkward!"  

"Oh well, it's just a crazy substitute."  

"Yeah, Yeah...but Mr. Pines is alright, even if he is crazy."  she said.  




Suicidal Christmas Sweater: Short Story Conclusion

{Continued from Part II}  or go to the  {Beginning}  

James was busy cutting down the blue spruce tree.

"I did Mark. I gave Jake your number, and I'm not sorry."

"I just ran into Jake at the grocery store. It was...odd to say the least...it's been so many years. I wish you wouldn't have given him my number."

"I'm done making excuses for you Mark. Jake isn't a fake. In fact, I feel like I might know Jake better than you now."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, Jake and some of your other friends have called, written, inquired repeatedly over the last ten years...sometimes I lied for you, other times I was honest. Most times I didn't know what you were doing. There were years where I wondered if you were dead."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize now, I'm just so happy to see you here, now. But there's hurt there, for you and for me...and your brother and Jake, and Mel...others."

"You've talked to Melissa too?"

"It's a small town. And it's been a decade. I have piles of mail for you. Letters, college inquiries, things that look like warrants, bill collectors, but mostly, it's people wanting to talk to you. When your father passed, we all got to kind of say our goodbyes. We could see the end coming. But with you...it was like, you almost died...and then you ran off, and nobody got any answers, or closure, or even to sympathize with you. You closed us all off."

"I know. I was young. And selfish. I can see that now. I didn't think anyone cared. There's really been letters? I didn't know my generation knew how to write letters?"

"Just 'cause you don't write, doesn't mean others don't," his mother said with guilty implications.  And seeing him ready to apologize again, "No, don't...I'm kidding...kind of."

--------------------------------------------------

Mark helped James compress the wide tree through the front door as the three girls non-obediently squeezed underneath to get to the ornament box first.   

"Girls, that was rude. It's going to take us some time to get this mounted and trimmed. There's no hurry!" 

"Sorry Dad!" "Yeah, sorry Uncle James!"  

"Haha, don't get mad James, they're just excited for Christmas. We used to act like that." 

"Did we? Those Christmases seem like so long ago. This house has so many memories. That's why I didn't want Mom to sell it. But those memories have been melancholy, mostly, lately."  

"I'm sorry James. Of all the people, you didn't deserve any of this. Nobody ever feels sorry for the prodigal son's brother who stayed loyal."  

They found the tree stand and fought with the screws and branches to get the tree standing up straight.  

"You don't need to make Biblical parallels to our life, Mark. I've tried to make my own happiness. But there's always been a hole. A gap. You were...are...my little brother, and I needed you at times. I didn't have a best man at my wedding.  Just a blank space that was where you were supposed to be. I don't want that blank space anymore. I'm afraid you're going to run off and leave us again...and I..." 

Mark, with tears in his eyes, "Damn it James. I'm soo sorry. I needed you too. I needed Mom, and wanted Dad...I just  wasn't strong enough. I can't change the past...I'm sorry I've caused so much drama. I hate drama. I'll be around. I'll probably end up apologizing a thousand times, and making Mom cry a bunch, and stuff, but...I hate Canada anyways..." 

"I knew it. Nobody goes to Canada...especially after South America."  

"Haha...yeah, and I can't go anywhere near Columbia or Peru...too many people want my head down there."  

"It looks great, boys," Mom said, as she returned with a pizza. "Sorry for not cooking tonight, but I thought this would make up for it."  She saw the tears on both Mark and James' faces. Healing is such a long process. "You still like pizza, right Mark?" 

"Are you kidding me? I haven't had good pizza since, I don't know. I have learned to appreciate guinea pig, though."  

"Gross. Stay away from my hamster, Uncle Mark," said Jenny.  

"Haha. They hear everything don't they."  

"They hear only what they want to hear..." laughed James.  

"Yeah, I guess I've been living that way too," Mark replied.   

---------------------------------------------------

"Are you sure, I'm sure there going to be some uncomfortable words in some of these..."  

"I'm sure Mom. Thanks for saving them for me."  

Mark closed the door and trembled as he flipped through the stacks of mail.  Army recruiting services and college informational letters he put in a discard pile. There was stuff from the selective service, the IRS, and Social security that he figured he'd have to read at some point. 

But mostly it was the letters that concerned him.  

He stacked them into piles. Two from Jake....One from his cousin Rodney...One from his high school Math teacher (weird)...One from Brandon...and he nearly lost it...Melissa.  This continued on.  She wrote three total. Four from Jake. Sixteen total letters from friends. Some thicker than others. Most were postmarked at least five years ago.  

I guess they gave up. I don't blame them.  

He put Melissa's in its own pile. Not tonight. Too many emotions tonight.  

He tore open a few. The words were both kryptonite and revealing. So they had cared. His family cared. His friends cared. The letter from his teacher was signed by seven other teachers. More tears formed. People apologized. They prayed. They cried. They wanted to see him.

What was I searching for---out there? His middle school youth pastor had mailed a letter exactly four years after his attempt on his own life.  It ended with a verse that sent chills down his spine: 
 Jer. 29:13-14--You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 'I will be found by you,' declares the LORD, 'and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,' declares the LORD, 'and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.'…
He never thought about his being gone as being in exile. How nice it was to be home again, even with all the tears and emotions. The word redeemed flooded his thoughts. That was a Christian word, right? It was nicer than 'being sober' or ' in remission', phrases that seemed temporal and like dams holding back sickness.

He slept untroubled and awoke to the smell of pancakes. Amy, apparently, made legendary pancakes.

------------------------------------------

The house was atwitter with the excitement of the holidays. The girls played with toys that would soon be abandoned for whatever St. Nick brought this year. Drew was making jokes reminiscent of his own father, and his bloodlines were smiling and laughing with cheer. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting.  Everyone seemed to be absorbing Mark's newfound contentedness.  

"So what's the plan for tonight, Mom?"  

"I thought maybe we could sew you up a nice ugly sweater."  

"Wow Mom. Aren't you making your legendary dinner?"  

"I am. But I think you should go, honey. It's not like we haven't got used to having our Christmas Eve dinner without you."  

"Mom's pulling no punches, today," James scoffed.  Even he was surprised at Mom's bluntness.  

"Well, I think he should go. He needs to have fun with good people. We'll get him on Christmas, anyway. It's not like he has in-laws to run off to."  

Mark sat silently and in awe. It was like the opposite of déjá vu. His family was so different than he remembered them. 

"Next thing you know, she'll tell you you're betrothed to some woman she thinks is appropriate, haha," James half-whispered.  

"I heard that," Mom said.  

"I don't know Mom. I don't know if I'm ready to go to a party with old faces. It's one thing to..." 

"Tear the band-aid off!" She interrupted.  

"Jeez...okay...If you don't want me..." he joked.  

"There's no need to sew any ugly sweaters. I graduated in 1984. My generation invented the ugly sweater, and if I didn't wear it in high school, I did in college or shortly after. I kept them all," Drew offered.  

"Wait...you graduated the year I was born?" Matt realized.  

"Yep. My first wife was six years younger than me, and she was a ...(looks around to see if his children were listening, they weren't)... head case, so I thought why not find a cougar, hence your mom."  

"Ra-ar" Mary growled back at him.  

"Gross," everyone else said in unison.  

------------------------------------------

"Holy Crap, and Merry Christmas...when you texted back I thought you were still going to bail!"  Jake smiled.  

"Well, If it gets freaky...my Mother's Toyota Tercel is ready to get me out of Dodge..." 

"Don't worry, the orgies are on Tuesdays.  Sweater parties are just sweater parties," Jake said with a wry smile.  

Jake looked into the surprisingly spacious home. It wasn't filled with faces, but enough that his entrance was the newest attraction. Jake's humor was the only welcoming factor so far.  

"Amber, can you get this guy some 'Nog...it took us ten years to get him here, we better butter him up...(then aside to Mark), "You are okay with alcohol, right?  I mean, you don't need to get drunk or anything, but the eggnog has rum in it...it's good..." 

"Yeah, I'm fine. Alcohol was never my drug of choice...so we're cool.  Besides, my brother makes some monster eggnog with lighter fluid..." 

Jake smiled. They loved that movie.  But Brandon looked at him dumbfounded.  "Did I hear you say that your brother mixes lighter fluid into his eggnog? Wouldn't that kill somebody?"

Mark was about to explain, but Jake cut him off.  "Brandon, before Seth Rogan movies, there was real comedy. It's called Better Off Dead.  I don't expect to you like it, cause there's no F-words or pot humor."

"Hey man, Fu.. Screw you, I watch normal stuff too."  "Mark don't listen to him. I'm not a stoner. I like Two and a half Men."  

"Good to see you Brandon, been a long time.  Yeah, I've heard of that show, but don't know it well. Unfortunately in Canada we get mostly MacGyver reruns and Orphan Black.  Continuum is another..."

"We should totally do a MacGyver night Jake!" Brandon blurted.

"Yeah, that would be pretty epic."

"Speaking of epic, I love your sweater Mark, did you order that online?" Ashley interrupted.

"No, believe it or not, this is my father-in-law's sweater," Mark said and took a drink of his rumnog. His eyes opened wide. "Wow, this stuff is stout..."  "Uh yeah, my new dad was a regular Dr. Huxtable in the 1980s."

"Ugh...Don't bring up Cosby..."

"Yeah, lets change the subject."

"I just meant the sweaters. He had or has tons of sweaters."

"So your mom remarried?"

"Yeah. He's alright. I have two sisters-in-law in grade school too...it's taking a little getting used to..."

There was another knock on the door and then Matt made his way in.  There were hugs and high fives and Mark had to find a spot for his bottle of rum in the kitchen.  He didn't see Mark off to the side of the pellet stove.

"Hey Jake, guess who I ran into at the liquor store. Melissa. (pause) Martinez.  She's back in town. I told her what we were up to, and she's totally coming over.  Just had to stop at home and find an ugly sweater.  I had to stop off at home too. Forgot my cell phone. She should be here any second...I hope that's okay? Nobody would care, right?"

The whole room fell silent. The casualness and niceties of a minute ago were slaughtered. The eeriness of death filled the room.

"What?" Matt said in astonishment...as he gazed around the room and at the eyes that were half directed at him, and half to someone else by the stove..."What?" and then he recognized behind the stove and behind the hard years was his old friend Mark Black.

"Oh, God...I'm sorry guys...Why didn't somebody tell me Mark Black, of all people, was going to be here.  I mean...Great to see you buddy, but geez...isn't this something you tell people..."

"I wasn't sure he would show up, so I didn't..." Jake started, but before he could finish, another knock on the front door, followed by it slowly being pushed in.

"Hey all, I'm crashing your party...sorry my sweater isn't better," said Melissa.

The room feel into an even quieter state.

"Wow...quite the welcome. Who died? Haha..."

"Uh...I did, almost. A decade ago."  Mark heard himself say.

Melissa walked past the entrance and looked to where the voice came from.  She then looked at Matt and said, "What is this, some kind of intervention? Did you plan this?"

"No, I promise, I didn't even know...it was..."

"It was all coincidence..." Jake said.  "I ran into Mark yesterday...."

"Maybe it's fate..." Amber said from the barely exposed kitchen. She marched across the war field and handed Melissa a rumnog. "You might need this."

"Fate...says the girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Nice." Melissa said as she downed the drink.

Everywhere somebody looked to somebody else for something to break the tension. If only Seth Rogan were here, thought Brandon, He'd do something funny or awkward.  

Mark gripped the keys to the Tercel inside his hoodie pocket. He'd have to push past the crowd and right next to Melissa to exit. It would not be subtle. This was his worst nightmare.

And yet. It was a band-aid. Rip it off. Rip it off.

"Well, there appears to be an elephant in the room. I did not come here to wreck this little get-together, and I'm sure Melissa didn't as well. I've been a lot of things in my life. Mostly an ass. I was an ass to many of you guys the last ten years. I was an ass to Melissa as well. I guess that's some sort of apology. I'm sorry for how I didn't treat you the last ten years. You can call me ass when I leave. But I'll not be an ass and an elephant in the room. It's too much stress."

"Here's to elephants and asses!" Jake said as he raised his cup

"Here, here," shouted the rest and they drank up.

"Here's to Democrats and Republicans, may they not continue to make a mockery of our country!" shouted another...and they drank to that toast.

"Obama," shouted another.  They took a drink.

"I blame Obama," shouted yet another.  They took another drink.

"Here's to Mark and Melissa in the same room," shouted Amber from behind Jake.  Everyone looked at her in awe. It was an odd toast, but they drank up anyway.

As the silo cup lowered from Mark's lips, he caught Melissa looking at him the same way.  It was going to be an awkward night, but courage had been lubricated by the rum.

Conversations started again. The room swelled away from Mark and Melissa, knowing that they had unfinished business.

Slowly she walked toward. The room pretended not to notice.  Mark fiddled with the keys even more so.  He didn't know what he wanted out of this scene.

"I meant it. I'm sorry for the last decade. I was a wreck."

"I've been a wreck too, Mark, only I didn't cut my wrists."  (The room cringed at the word wrists...)

"I know."

"They told you? All those rumors? Well, some of them are true. Most of them are true."

"I don't care. I mean, about the rumors. Who am I to judge? I tried to kill myself."

"Because of me."

"No, not entirely. I was depressed about my dad. I was suffering from low self-esteem. I was young and stupid, and it wasn't serious. It just went way further than I intended."

"This is awkward. They're all listening."  She said as she gazed around the room at eyes that darted away quickly.

The room got louder with small talk, trying harder to pretend they weren't listening.

"I don't care anymore. I'm tired of running from my past."

"I wish I didn't have a past." "I wish I could've had this conversation with you ten years ago..."  "It appears, now, that we are both just damaged goods."

"You guys wanna try my famous transatlantic cocktail?  It's made from cranberry sauce, oddly enough,"  Ashley interjected.

"Yeah, I'd love one." Mark blurted. "I've had good encounters with cranberry spirits, lately."

"I guess, I'll try one. What'd you think Mark, do you think we'll ever be fixed?"

"Depend if root's strong."  Mark chuckled.

"Was that from Karate Kid?"

"Yeah, the third one. Haha. Just something that's been going through my head lately. Look we have crummy pasts. Histories we'd like to ignore. But I know who I am, now. My roots are strong. And those years of mistakes...I don't know...lately, I've just felt like they've been redeemed."

"That sounds nice. I wish it was that easy." "You know you sound like your mom right now. She's actually been quite nice to me over the years..."

"Seriously? You and my mom talk to each other? Why am I not surprised. You know...she's cooking her famous Christmas Eve dinner right now..."

"I'd love some real food. This transatlantic cocktail is terrible."

And there, while avoiding awkward eavesdroppers and under the influence of odd intoxicants, Mark felt like for once, because of this week, he might have a future worth living for.












Suicidal Christmas Sweater: Short Story Part II


"Hey honey, how was the grocery store? You know you forgot your wallet, it's sitting on the dining room table, I tried to tweet you to let you know..." Mary said before she saw the look on his face.  

Wow. I'd even sew in this room. I could be the next Betsy Ross
"It's texted, mom, and it's fine anyway.  I shoplifted your precious cranberry sauce, it kept me company on the ride home, Melissa is a whore now, and everyone in this town still thinks I'm nuts. I don't know why I even came home, I should've never left Canada."  

He slammed the door in which used to be his room.  Now it was a sewing room with quilts and other various projects taking up large portions of the space. A futon was already made up for him, and he flopped down dejectedly.  

In the living room, an emergency meeting took place.

"Nobody wants to stay in Canada. Not even Canadians," James said in an attempt at humor. 

When people are angry at Obama, what
they really are angry at, is Canada.  
Mom didn't bite. "James, it's taken 10 years to get Mark comfortable enough to come home. I will not have you making jokes at the expense of your brother, or the work we have all done to get him to this place." 

"Sorry, mom, but that's what Dad would've said. He always broke through Mark's defenses with humor."  

"Don't you think I wish John were still here too." 

"Hey, I'm sitting right here,"  Andrew said.  

"I know you are, Drew, honey.  You've been a great companion, a great husband to me for the last few years, but you aren't the father of my sons. You hardly know Mark. You hardly know how long I've cried and desperately sought to pull him out of his shell. Do you know what it's like to nearly lose a son at his own hands? I lost my husband and nearly my son in the same year. And I've been fighting like hell to get him back...healthy...included...loved."  

"I'm sorry Mary, I didn't mean it like that...I know there's stuff here from before my time. Me and the girls can take off for a while if you want..."  

"No," James said, "You're family now. We need you and the girls."  

Ashley and Gracie giggled at being mentioned, the conversation was over their head.  They went on playing Barbies with their step-neice Jenny. Together they looked like cousins.  James had to remind himself that these grade school girls were also his step-sisters.  

"Thank you James. Yes, Drew, you are family now. You helped me convince Marky (she hadn't called him Marky since he was in the hospital) to come home. You paid for the plane ticket. You have a right in all matters of this family, even if this junk comes from before your time."  

-------------------------------------------

Mark laid in his old room and felt an awkward comfortableness.  Memories mixed in with the now. It was like drinking from a Pepsi can that somebody had filled with Dr. Pepper. The brain is easy to trick. Perceptions, based on expectations, that are not met are sometimes called illusions.  And illusions, based on interpretation from the brain, can either be pleasant or horrible.  Mark didn't know what to expect from this trip home he was on. He used to take drugs to trick his mind. But the last two years he had committed himself to accepting reality.  Even if that reality was a bad trip.  

He cried a little, thinking how his selfishness (for that's what he attributed it to, now) had destroyed his life and hers. Of course, that was his intention. She hurt him. He wanted to hurt her. She embarrassed him, he wanted to haunt her.  

That was his 18-year-old self thinking. He was a better person now. He had suffered. He survived two years of therapy. Two brief stints in prison. Two years of heavy addiction. Had traveled throughout most of South America. Just avoided a hostage situation in Columbia. Nearly married a beautiful but ornery Peruvian woman. Got involved with smuggling. Nearly got killed getting out of it. Moved to Canada to start over, yet again, in his mid-twenties. Was homeless for most of a year. 

For when you totally relied on your
roommates for everything good.  
Heavy living leads to aging, and Mark showed every bit of his 28 years. He had nothing to show for those years, though. No house, car, wife, child, degree...just enough belongings to fit a trailer U-haul. 

He was running from emotions and apologies and forgiveness. He was angry at God for taking his father, his future wife, his senior year of high school, and his dignity in one year.  ONE YEAR!  

And even though he thought he was better, he was still running.  Even the Cranberry Sauce knew it.  

He heard voices in the other room. Oh yes, the ventilation.  Dad (oh how he missed his dad) had installed the HVAC system in the house, and it wasn't to code. Mark had been able to hear everything in the living room which was separated by the hallway, because the ventilation split both ways.  The morning conversations always woke him up. The evening conversations always kept him informed. He once interrupted his brother's make-out session after prom by yelling "Don't do it James, she's NOT THE ONE!" James never forgave him for that one.  

They call it a living room. I want to do my living there.  
He also heard his father's last year through coughs and wheezes and hacking up of lungs. Dad moved into the living room when his cancer progressed during Mark's senior year. A hospice nurse and mom carefully monitored him day and night...and while Mark seemed distant that year, he really had heard enough suffering for a lifetime.  

When his dad went, he was almost happy. No more coughing, no more noises. No more suffering.  

But he also felt guilty. James, two years into college, had returned all the time to help out. James eventually quit college (to both his parent's chagrin), and got a full time job to help the family with bills and medical costs not covered by medicare.  James researched alternative medicines, and consoled mom after bad days. Most of the last few months were bad days. Mark knew the end was near, but didn't know what to do. 

So he invested everything into Melissa. At first it was wonderful. The love was mutual. Everyone thought they were the cutest couple. He wanted to marry her. She wasn't sure. She wanted to travel, and explore, and go off to college. He wanted to stay near home for his father. His father could go at anytime. As his father declined, he became even more clingy to her. On some days it could be called needy. His codependency scared her.  

She wanted space. They broke it off.  They got back together. They fought. It was a tumultuous year of break ups and make ups.

She had kissed other guys during their breaks, which always made Mark angry, but it was when she supposedly hooked up with the star point guard from the rival high school, that Mark lost it.

He was a blubbering mess. He spied on her. Called her on the phone incessantly. She refused to answer. She threatened to have a restraining order put on him. Then Dad died.

She showed up to the funeral. She treated him okay, but not like old times. It was pity. She pitied him.  He didn't know how to mourn for his father, or his ex's patronizing behavior, so he acted out. Got suspended for fighting (a guy he thought Melissa had kissed once), and got an MIP at a crazy college party because he thought she'd be there. She wasn't.

As June neared. She had drifted away for real. She smiled now, and her apparent happiness without him made him angry and depressed.

He wasn't serious when he tried it.  He wanted to make a statement. It was a cry for help. He just wanted her to feel like crap.  He used an Exacto blade. The cuts were clean. He his mother would be home soon. It would be a night in the hospital and he would be visited by everyone. It would be a party, or so he thought.

He hadn't planned on passing out from blood loss and falling on the blade.  It pierced his intestines and he developed a sepsis infection. The hospital stay was long. The psychiatric stay was longer.

Mom used all of dad's life insurance money to get him treated longer. She wasn't ready to nurse another human back to life. It was tough on everyone.

He was an embarrassment to the family, he thought. Instead of dealing with the ramifications and the pain, he ran. It took him South. Trouble with the law forced him even further South, and then the story gets blurry.

He spent half a decade on a bad trip in South America. No cell phones, no social media, off the radar, even from his family.

Sobriety hit him in a old Catholic Church in Cabanaconde, in Southern Peru. He wasn't Catholic, still isn't, but the spirit of God hit him so hard in the midst of a service he barely understood, that he knew it was authentic. He cried like a baby. For his father, for his mother, for his brother, for his life gone astray. He felt like the prodigal son, and God had not said a word about his past indiscretions, he merely felt, love. Real love like he hadn't felt since before dad got sick.

He broke off his engagement and tried to start over in Canada. But vices and old demons kept haunting him. He knew he had to go home and confront his past, yet embracing pain is easier said than done.

He listened through the vent and heard the majority of the "family meeting."  He was tired of feeling sorry for himself now. He needed "out."  The meeting was put on hold as mom answered a phone call.

-------------------------------------------

"I'm sure there have been too many of these type meetings held in my honor. I'm sorry for that. I can't change the past. But please, while I'm here, however long that will be, let's not have any more interventions on my behalf. I'm 28 years old. I've taken care of myself in the past, and I'm only here because I'm tired of being alone in this world...I believe we have a Christmas tree to go get, am I right?" 

"YEAH, lets go get the tree!" yelled the kids almost in unison, who quickly abandoned their make-believe world of toys and exchanged them for gloves, jackets and beanies.  

"Are you sure, I mean, we can do it another time?" replied Amy (James' wife).  

"Yeah honey, we don't need to do anything rash.  Why don't I just make dinner and we can talk about it."  

"Please, stop treating me like a burn victim. I ran into an old friend, and was confronted with my stupid choices...I wasn't ready for it. Yet, in a weird kind of way, I wanted that too. I'm sorry when I got home I acted like a teenage girl. I'm fine now. -----Hey, we need a tree, let's go get a tree!"

"I wanna go with Uncle Mark," yelled James' daughter.  The other girls started a similar chant, "Uncle Mark!"  

James looked down at Drew's girls, "technically, girls, Mark is your big brother...well big step-brother."  

"It's fine, James, they can call me Uncle Mark. It's weird enough that mom's married again. Toddler sisters are just too..."

"We aren't toddlers.  I'm 9 and Gracie is 6 and a half!"  The older one said, who Mark thought was named Ashlyn.  

"Oh, is that so...Pardon me, young ladies."  

"Haha...they're going to torture us just like real sisters," James said.  


-------------------------------------------

"Does anyone in this town give you crap for owning a Toyota Tundra?" Mark asked his brother in the cramped confines of the extended cab truck.  The girls giggled about nothing in particular in the back seat.  

And after age 30, nobody cares. Well, mostly nobody.  
"It's a truck, Mark, and a damned good truck too. This Christmas tree will fit in the payload, that's enough. I'm not towing a 30" travel trailer with it. Besides we aren't in high school...nobody cares about what brand shirt or truck or if your shoes match your socks. In the adult world..."  

"I live in the adult world, James. I'm sorry. I've just been out of the states so long. I mean, Obama?"  

"Well, black or white, our government is still pretty much stupid."  

"What we need is a woman, like Hillary,  to shake things up," Amy said half-joking.  

"Sarah Palin would've shaken things up..." James joked back. He noticed Mark wasn't laughing.  "Oh, uh Sarah Palin was the vice-presidential nominee for the Republican..." 

"I know who she is, James. They have the internet in all parts of the world now."  

James turned the truck down a side street and then down a long driveway filled with trees of every stage of development. It was the same tree farm they had visited from when they were kids.  Although the price of the U-cut had risen from $10 to $25 since the last time Mark had visited.  

"Kinda expensive for twenty minutes of annoying labor."  

"Yeah, well, try and find a decent burger for under 10 bucks...things change."  

They exited the vehicle with Mom and Drew parking right next to them.  

Gracie ran to her dad and yelled, "That was fun, but James said the D-word, dad."  

Drew and Mary looked at James and faked an "unacceptable" face.  

"Sorry Mom. Sorry Drew," James said.  

The kids then ran off looking for the perfect tree or squirrels.  James and his wife were already looking a 8-footer that Mom would no doubt disqualify for limb disfigurement.  

Mary creeped close to Mark and grabbed his arm with her mittened hands.  "I'm so happy you're here with us, Marky. You don't know how many years I've wanted this..." before her motherly instincts gave way, and tears glistened down her cheeks. "So many years we've lost, Mark..."  

"I'm sorry Mom. I was broken and embarrassed. I thought I needed time. I didn't want to burden you guys with my problems."  

"Let's not talk about the past. You're here, now. Remember this place? We used to come here with Dad and you boys would always try and convince us to take home the ugliest tree."  

"Haha. Yeah. We always tried to get your perfectionist eye all frustrated."  

"Perfectionist? I don't..."

"Oh come on Mom...it'll take you looking at 100 different trees to pick one you like. Haha. It's cool." 

"Well, when you're paying $25 dollars..."  

Drew and the rest of the family waved them over to look at a filled-out blue spruce. 

"You go ahead, Mom. I just need a few minutes to myself."  

"Okay, honey."  

When the arguing about the tree's merits started, Mark walked the opposite direction. Again, that weird sensation of knowing a place, but having everything in the wrong place, overwhelm him.  

Put that in a fancy pot, and it's worth like $600.
He saw an especially ugly tree, sparsely branched and looking like it would fall over if not rooted into the soil.  

"Oh, poor Charlie Brown tree, will anybody ever pick you?"  

"Charlie Brown? I'm no midget tree! I'm just a full grown bonsai."  

"Oh...sorry Mr. Tree."  

"Call me Miyagi."  

"Haha...okay." 

"If it was up to you, you'd pick me, right Mark?" 

"Yeah, I probably would, Mr. Miyagi. As a joke." 

"It wouldn't be a joke to you. You always show empathy to creatures that nobody else would dare like or love. It's part of who you are. It's why you are so sensitive. Because if the world was nicer to the obviously hurting people of the world, maybe we would be more conscientious of the people who aren't as obvious in their pain."  

"God damn, if everything aint a guru. Haha."  

"HEY! No reason to take the Lord's name in vain.  And we aren't all gurus or philosophers, some of us are merely sherpas, helping people find their way."  

"Sorry Mr. Miyagi...I'm guessing you are the sherpa-type then..."  

"Uncle Mark?  Why are you talking to that odd-looking tree?" said Ashlyn out of the blue.  

"Wha...oh, uh...well, I was just thinking how many people probably think it's ugly. I was just, uh, complementing it on its nonconformity."  

"Well, I think it's beautiful if you do."  

"I do, Ashlyn, I do."  

"My name is Ashley.  My middle name is Lynn.  That's why my Daddy calls me Ashlynn.  But you can call me that too."  

"Oh. I didn't know. Thank you. I'm having to learn a lot quickly. I've been away for a long time."  

"I know. I only ever saw a picture of you before this week. And Mary cries a lot while looking at your pictures in the photo album."  

"She does, huh. Well, I am kinda like a unicorn."  

"No you're not. But why didn't you come to my Daddy's and your mommy's wedding? We're you mad at them? I'm not. Not anymore. My real mom doesn't hardly want to see us. She got remarried too...I don't like him...not like I like Mary. Mary's like my mom used to be."  

"Wow Ashley...Ashlyn that's really deep. I'm sorry. I guess I'm like your mom a little. Sometimes things happen that make us hurt really bad. They kind of break us for a little while. I guess I liked being broken. I liked being a victim. It allowed me to hurt others and not feel guilty about it. Sometimes we don't even realize we are hurting others. I thought I was helping my mom by not being a burden to her...I didn't realize that I was hurting her by being...away.....I bet your mommy doesn't realize she's hurting you...she's just doing her thing...she'll figure it out (hopefully)."  

"Well, at least I have this family now."  

"Yeah...me too. Me too, Ashlyn."  

"I'm going to go see what Gracie and Jenny are up to.  Bye Uncle Mark...bye Mr. Miyagi."  

"You heard me say that?" Mark chuckled to himself.  

"Yeah. Wax on; Wax off. I know the Karate Kid. I've seen it like four times on Netflix on my iPad. It is kinda weird that you called that tree Mr. Miyagi though."  

"It because it's like a bonsai tree...nevermind. Go find your sister and cousin."  

"Niece. Jenny is my niece."  

"Oh yeah."  

Mark felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He was surprised to get service this far out in the country. 
Pt. 1: Hey man, this is Jake. I got your number from your mom. Hope you don't mind. I felt like crap after that situation in the grocery store. I'm not really good at communicating, and I was so caught off guard running into you there. I have so much I want to talk to you about. And a lot of apologies.   
Pt. 2: We aren't 18 anymore, and I think we could at least try that conversation over again. I can do better, haha.  Anyway, the offer still stands for tomorrow. Would love to see you. So would everyone else. Text me back if you want directions or whatever.  
 Are you kidding me? "Mom, did you give my number to Jake Callow?"  Mark yelled across the farm.  


{END OF PART II}
{CONTINUE TO CONCLUSION}



Suicidal Christmas Sweaters: A Short Story

"We need a clean up of a man's soul on aisle 6, please." 
Mark stood now, in the middle of the canned fruit aisle, attempting to find something he had never searched for before.  Thankfully, the stocker girl who pointed him to this aisle was younger; there was a time when this store was filled with his own classmates.

That was a decade ago, in a time and place he would rather not remember. This was only his second time back in his "hometown," and the first time he had made a public appearance. Why he had volunteered to get the cranberry sauce for his mother for the upcoming Christmas dinner, he wasn't quite sure. Perhaps he was testing fate. Maybe he wanted to see if his wounds had healed.

He had to leave the town. 20,000 people is too small to not run into old acquaintances, old memories, old nightmares.  He rubbed the raised ripple on his forearm.

"Mark?  Mark...F-in...Black? It is you. How the hell are you dude?"

Does anyone actually want this
during the holidays?  
"I'm...I'm good. I'm just picking up some Cranberry Sauce..." Mark slowly replied as if caught doing something illegal.

"It's Jake; Jake..."

"Jake Callow, I remember.  You look exactly the same except your beard is respectable now." Mark replied, hoping a joke would counter his anxiety.

"Ha ha...yeah. I did the No-Shave-November and my wife liked it, so I haven't done much other than trimming it up..."  "What the hell, dude. It's been so long. You're like a unicorn in these parts. There's legends of every kind about your disappearance. I haven't seen you since the acc..."

"Yeah, I'm sure. Maybe we can catch up sometime and I'll fill you in. Not really a supermarket conversation, if you know what I mean."  Mark said quietly, trying to bring Jake's boisterous volume down.

"Oh, sure. You know, man, I'm sorry. I mean sorry about everything," Jake said a little quieter (perhaps only audible to the people on the cereal aisle next over). "I meant to call or visit or write or something, it was just June, and we were graduating, and it was crazy, and I..."

"Don't worry about it. It was a decade ago. Nobody, especially teenagers, know what to do when a friend tries to commit suicide." Mark couldn't believe he just used those words out loud, now not caring if the cereal aisle heard or not. "Besides we weren't really that close, and it had nothing to do with you," Mark said as he pulled his sweatshirt sleeves even further down his arm.  He saw that his phone was glowing, and ignored the text from his mother.

Jake saw the nonverbal cue to shut up and nervously blurted, "God...I'm sorry for bringing it up...here it's been a decade and I'm opening up a can of worms...look, forget I said anything. It's just cool to see you, and I didn't mean anythi.."

Stock photos are so much happier than real life.  
"We're good Jake. But look, I gotta get this cranberry sauce home. My mother wants us to go pick out the tree tonight."

"On the 23rd? Wow. We've had our tree up for almost a month. Of course my wife is kinda crazy about the Holidays."

"Yeah, it used to be a tradition on the first night of Winter. I guess they got a late jump this year with me taking the trip out here."

"Hey speaking of traditions...we throw a fugly Christmas sweater party every year on Christmas Eve.  I'd love it if you came over tomorrow. Everyone would love it. You know I married Amber, right?  Well, there'll be some people there you wouldn't know, but Matt, Brandon, Kyle, Ashley, Melissa and a few others..."

Mark's head jerked up when he heard Melissa's name.

"I mean, Melissa Miller...uh, she was Melissa Braxton in high school...not the Melissa..."

"It's cool dude, I wouldn't care either way," Mark lied, obviously. He hadn't heard anything about Melissa, his Melissa, or his old Melissa, and preferred not to...or thought he didn't want to...or wasn't quite sure what he wanted.

"She's back in town now. She had to get out for awhile."

"Who?" Mark knowingly asked.

"Melissa Martinez...she might've gotten the worse end of the deal...I mean, she lost it."

Don't work on your nonverbal skills Clint,
you just keep on with your ripe self.  
Mark cringed. THE WORSE END!  I TRIED TO KILL MYSELF BECAUSE OF HER, YOU DAFT IDIOT! Jake noticed Mark's agitation.  Note to self: work on nonverbal skills.  

"You know, actually I don't really know much about anything. You guys were both my friends. I know she pulled some idiotic stuff that pushed you over the edge. But when you wouldn't her see you, uh, afterwards, she she just kinda went AWOL. She was drunk all the time, and sleeping with everyone...it was terrible. I pulled her aside once and told her she was too good to be..."

"Look, Jake, thanks for the walk down memory lane. It really puts me in the mood for some eggnog..." and with that, Mark stormed past him, and through an abandoned register lane, and exited the market out through the in door.  The unprepared automatic sliding door barely avoided a collision.

Mark started the car and slammed it into drive before it had even breathed one drop of fuel.  He sped out of the driveway and onto the main street, slamming his fists on the steering wheel.

-------------------------------------------

"I HATE THIS TOWN! WHY DID I COME BACK!"  He looked down at the passenger seat and realized he had stolen the can of cranberry sauce.

"Look what you made me do, Jake! Now I'm a suicidal thief!" He said, and then laughed. This whole thing was a farce or a dark comedy, and he just wanted it to end.  He wanted to leave again.

"What do you think, Cranberry Sauce?"
Do you know how hard it is to find an image of a guy driving his car and
talking to a can of cranberry sauce? I mean, it's fairly common, right?

"I think you need to man up and live a little.  Jake was trying to be friendly. He was once your friend. And he was just telling you rumors he thought you wanted to know," the cranberry sauce said (but didn't say).

"Well...aren't you an introspective can of jelly." Mark was able to replicate the tone of his many therapists and well-wishers onto inanimate objects.

"Introspective, motivational, and full of antioxidants. I'm good for the kidneys too. If you ate me more often, you wouldn't be such a narrow urethra."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means you're backed up. Only 50% is getting through. It doesn't matter what I say, or what Jake says, or what your mother says...you're only going to hear or do what you want."

"In fairness, you are a can of Christmas sauce."

"Touché."

"Besides, I think it's more like 80%. I'm working on it. I've been working on it. I know I'm stubborn.  Anyway, we're home now, so I think you better shut up."

"Enjoy me. Food tastes so much better when you're willing to steal for it."







Let's Not Talk About Sex: Having "The Talk"

We walked past the back wall of board games, looking for that unique gift idea that never seem to present itself in retail stores; no, Uno would not do.

"Wha! That is so inappropriate,"  my daughter Lily shrieked.  

Oh goodness, what could it be this time? A Bratz doll with a heart tattoo on her cleavage?  

No...I laughed to myself, as Lily pointed out the culprit.  

There is nothing sexy about this board game.  
It was a board game called: Battle of the Sexes.  

"It says Sexes!" she half yelled to me in her whisper tone.  

So, there, in the middle of the toy section, on an isle painted in every color of not-gender-nuetral pink, I had to explain the dictionary (1a) definition of sex.  The two definitive categories of gender based on reproductive organs. I did not include transgender or omnisexuals or androgynes, as the world is confusing enough to a nine-year, that referencing these "others" was...well, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about anymore. I just know that the board game Battle of the Sexes does not have a game piece for gender neutral individuals. I know, right; discrimination.  

Anyway, I know what SEX she was referring to, even though she doesn't know what that SEX really consists of.   

Which means, sometime soon, I or her mother, will have to give her the talk (please, God, let it be her mother).  

And she still believes in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and that I'm the strongest man in the world.  

It's not fair, because quite frankly, she isn't ready. She attends a little private school (that we parents can barely afford) and her friends are still heavily interested in dolls and singing Frozen songs. She only has a few years of carefree living before the fission of hormonal lunacy and emotional drama turn her into a temporal irrational Medusa.  

I'm not making it sharper.  I'm dulling it,
so it will cut through flesh slower...
And I'm not ready to be turned to stone (or permanently stoned, now that Oregon legalized weed), although I somewhat understand why many parents want to "check-out" during the middle years of their children's existence.  

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not ready for my little girl to grow up. I don't want her to be a woman. I'm not ready to deal with boys or men. I haven't even built my axe grinding stone near my front entrance to deal with potential suitors, yet.  

But she has so many questions, mostly because of the crap that gets plastered all over media. The other day she was singing Salt 'N Pepa's "Push It" song because somebody in the GIECO advertising department has no lyrical analysis skills, and used a song about SEX to sell insurance. (Well, sex does sell).  

And then she's discovered music. We couldn't stop it. She hears songs. She thinks she likes Katy Perry (even though she "dresses gross"). And she and her sister (Nadia age seven) love Christina Perri. And because we (her parents) are too cheap to buy these CDs, they access them through the Pandora app, or worse, through YouTube on our computer.  

I don't think Salt 'N Pepa were talking about "Pushing it"
in regards to childbirth, either. But nice try GIECO.  
For a while, I was adamant about not watching the videos, just like my mother was about MTV. Most of the messages that popular music portrayed went way over my head in the 1990s (like Naughty By Nature's OPP)...although others, like Baby Got Back didn't need Sir Mix-A-Lot's risqué video to convey the theme (although now I understand the "anaconda" reference).  

Many of the songs, though, have neat little messages to go along with the video. My girls fell in love with Taylor Swift. Love Story was a sweet little song, and a harmless little corresponding video. Swift is a smart girl. I like how she challenges the music industry, and her songs are often ironically criticizing her critics. She isn't trying to do the challenge the morales of the times, Madonna-thing, either.  

But YouTube doesn't let you just listen to one song. It entices you with "other related" videos.  Each video is a doorway drug that leads you to something a little harder, a little edgier, a little more sinful.  

Maybe the song is about "shaking off" the pounds?
My girls traveled down this looking glass, and wound up listening to Swift's Shake It Off. Sadly, I like this song (and again, it's message of ignoring critics). But halfway through the video, a strange twerking montage ensues as Swift snakes under the legs of some bustier butted women nearly bouncing their backsides on her head.  

Now, I think this is Swift maybe showing solidarity to Miley Cyrus, and the whole twerking VMA fiasco of last year.  Or Swift is owning the fact that she herself has very little backside (as she attempts to twerk and laughs it off). Again, I like her as an artist for this.

But my daughter watching said, "why do girls do that with their butts?  Isn't it gross?"  

She asked me, and not her mother.  I'm not sure how I feel about twerking. I like the female body, of course. I like backsides. I think there are about a billion sexier or more erotic things a woman can do than shaking her rump like arm flab...but...on some basic chromosomal level, the dance is appealing (even as I don't want it to be).  

This was once risqué. Now it's a huge statue.  
I wanted to say, "Well, you see, for the last forty years, sexuality, and more correctly, pornography, has devolved from exposure, to debasement. Playboy, a magazine that many men grew up salivating over even though it had a stigma of "sin" attached, has become almost mainstream. Even Playboy set up many men for disappointment, even though it only showcased nude women. Then the internet came along and said, "Playboy is for sissies, check out what we got some women to agree to______."  Most men initially looked at some of these fetish-like images with disgust...but then this became the new normal "porno."  And if no woman looks like the images in Playboy, no woman can (or will) do the stuff in most of these internet sites and porno movies. Yet some men still expect this kind of debasement to get turned on.  When women twerk in videos, it is really some music executive saying, "We need more sex in this video, because we need more guys watching it." Sadly, the secondary message is "Girls, this is how you attract guys...just like how hookers attract Johns by shaking their ta-tas on the street corner."  

Of course, I didn't say this.  Because my daughter is 9. Instead I said, "Umm...it is gross. Music producers like gross, and encourage their female artists to show off more and more of their flesh, because people are unnaturally curious if famous people's bodies look better than their own.  Unfortunately, having a great voice and catchy songs is not enough to sell CDs. A singer also has to sell the idea that she (or he) is physically superior to the average person as well. Swift isn't necessarily exposing herself in this video, instead she is having dancers do it for her...all in an attempt to sell her music."  

Thankfully, Lily accepted this answer and said, "That's dumb."  

Yes it is, Lily. But most of our over-sexualized society is dumb. The world is going to keep "pushing it, real good" when it comes to glamorizing sex. And as your parent, I'm going to eventually explain the deep connotations of sexuality, and I'm going to say that innocence is blissful, that purity is a virtue, and that someday, when you bring a boy over, I may or may not club him with an axe.