In Which I Make Friends With Inanimate Objects.

The first friend I met today was a towel. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a very good friend to the towel, but I did my best to console it.

Because the towel in the hotel room had been hanging there since I used it yesterday, and it was slightly damp. I reached to the hotel rack for a fresh towel, then realized this poor towel had been hanging all night just waiting for me to get back, and now it was watching me choose a newer, better towel right in front of it….

So, yes. I reached out and squeezed the old towel affectionately just to let it know this was nothing personal.

I do this all the time.

I once stopped my wife from pouring water out of a jug, because I’d been using it for weeks to water our plants, and “It wants to feel useful.” I made friends with a small sample-sized bottle of shampoo, for absolutely no good reason I could explain, being absolutely convinced it wanted to sit happily in the left corner of the tub, and consistently moved it back whenever anyone shifted it. I apologize to chairs I bump into.

(The flip side to this, of course, is when I bang my head on the door sill when I’m getting out of a van and get angry because it meant to hurt me.)

I’m not crazy, or at least not entirely; I don’t think they come alive in the night, Pixar-style, to dance and hold hushed conferences on how kind I was that day. I just sort of sloppily imbue ambitions onto whatever’s around me, and pack-bond them the way a three-year-old suddenly picks up an affection for some random spork.

It’s a harmless quirk, and not a strong one; when the shower bottle was empty, I didn’t carry it around with me because we were besties, I said a happy farewell and chucked it in the trash can. (Which, now that I think about it, did not have an opinion on me insofar as I could tell.) But I’m not quite sure why I do this; is it because I spend so much time trying to model the behavior of other humans that it spills over into ordinary life? Did I have some past childhood trauma related to a toy being taken away?

I dunno. Either way, I just sort of do it, so subconsciously that it’s taken me years of married life to have my wife inform me that this is, in fact, a thing for me.

By writing this, I’m kind of hoping to find that other people also feel sympathy for inanimate carbon rods. Or I may just find out I’m totally bonkers.

Doesn’t matter much either way. I know the shampoo bottle thinks well of me.

Good Communication Involves Anticipation.

Too many people treat their relationships like they’re playing The Sims.

Now, if you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000 who’s never played an electronic God over simulated humans, the Sims is a game where you maintain and monitor little people. Lots of people turn out to be very cruel Gods, but if you want to quote-unquote “win” the Sims by making your people happy, you have to nourish them – feeding them, making sure their home is clean, ensuring they don’t get lonely or bored.

You don’t have to pay too much attention. If things get bad enough, little thought bubbles will appear over their head as they fume about the filth or they dream about a turkey dinner – wait long enough, and they’ll tell you what they want so you can do it.

This turns out to be a terrible way of maintaining a relationship.

Yes, clear communication is a must-have for any relationship, but too many people have taken the lesson that the only communication that matters is what people say verbally in that moment. They play a game of verbal gotcha, where nothing counts unless you come to them specifically and tell them “I am unhappy.”

So they’ll play videogames for hours, not paying attention to their way their partner is cleaning the apartment or clearly wants to play a game themselves, shutting themselves out until their partner comes to them and explicitly says, “Hey, I need you to do this for me.”

At which point, then they finally get off their duff and do the work.

But a healthy relationship consists of a steady stream of check-ins. You don’t just wait for your partner to buzz in with the “HEY I AM BURNT OUT” – you touch their arm at a party and say “How you doing?” to see if they’re ready to go home. You hear that rattle in the car and know it’ll worry your partner until someone takes it in to get it checked. You see the dog needs walking and don’t wait for your partner to ask you.

You proactively tend to your partner rather than waiting for them to get fed up enough to tell you.

Because waiting for them to tell you all the time sends a subtle message: I don’t think about you unless you make me do it. Which is, at best, a passive-aggressive game to play with someone you theoretically love, and at worst is downright neglect.

Look. Good communication isn’t mindreading. I’m not saying you should be anticipating your partner’s every need like some sort of miracle valet. But at the same time, “knowing what your beloved likes or dislikes” isn’t mind-reading either – that’s hard cold evidence, accumulated over the years, and if you have dated someone for six months and don’t have an idea of what their basic needs are, then I’m gonna gently suggest you’re doing a pretty rotten job as a partner.

Sometimes, love is flowery speeches. Sometimes, love is hard discussions about what’s really needed to make this work. But in truth, a lot of love are these mundane little get-aheads, where you see something that’s gonna make your partner’s day worse and clear it up before they get there.

If you’re really lucky, they’ll do that for you too.

Twenty Years Together: Announcing Our Twentieth Vanniversary.

As of today, my wife and I have been married for twenty years. Over those twenty years, I have spoken to everyone who was at our wedding, and I am pleased to report that everyone is shocked, shocked, that we have made it this far.

They are correct to be shocked. We teetered on the edge of divorce for the first two years. Our origin story is somewhat legendary: We met in a Star Wars chat room on CompuServe, back in the days when Oprah devoted entire shows to warning you about how everyone online was a serial killer and only the most sweatily desperate losers resorted to computerized dating.

Yet the thing is, Gini and I weren’t dating.

We were debating.

Because we spent five years merrily arguing over Star Wars, politics, and religion, all without a hint of romance. I was impressed by her sharp wit and her incisive insights; she adored my terrible puns. We debated in a forum, of course, so we were one of a group of regulars, but occasionally we’d dig down into a days-long thread.

But she was married. And I was engaged. So romance? I’d say it was not an option, but honestly, it wasn’t even a concept.

Gini was just a good online friend. In a day when even having an online friend marked you as a hopeless social outcast. Yet I was glad to have her in my camp.

But then my fiancee (rightfully!) dumped me, and Gini was getting a divorce, and when I discovered she was flirting heavily with another man, and I sent her this email:

Dear Gini:

Don’t you realize the reason I’ve never flirted with you once is because I’ve been half a heartbeat away from falling in love with you?

Her response was perhaps the most Gini thing I’ve ever heard:

I’m very flattered, but before I continue and potentially embarrass myself, answer one question:

Were you drunk when you wrote this?

I was not. And so we tumbled into love, and it turned out that an online romance – however tumultuous – was not the same as actually living together, and so when we actually married we had to learn how to deal with a spouse you couldn’t simply log off from.

That process involved a lot of evolution on both of our parts. Gini actually fell out of love with me, and we spent four months in limbo as we decided whether we could make this work.

Lemme tell you: when your wife finally says “I love you” to you after four months of absence, you never take those words for granted again.

And today?


We keep patting ourselves down to verify: Is it really this good? But it is. She’s my favorite person, and I’m hers. We still have knock-down fights once about twice a year – nobody’s perfect – but when we do, they’re progressive, decisive, leading to a conclusion. The rest of the time it’s constant check-ins, small negotiations, buoyed by a lot of courtesy.

But that’s not enough.

For a marriage that’s lasted twenty years?

You need adventure.

Which is why, in October, Gini and I will be taking our van and driving on an ten-day, aimless, meandering down to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons to see what living out of a van is like. After all, we’ve been fervent attendees of the Cleveland RV show for years, where they pack 800 different RVs into the cavernous IX center and let you exhaust your calves walking up three steps and down three steps into hundreds of RVs.

We’ve fantasized about retiring and going on the road; now’s the time to see whether we can do it, packed into miniature form.

We specifically have no plans, nor will we make any. William Least Heat-Moon discussed the concept of quoz – those wild, surprising vistas that open themselves up to you when you have no agenda and just slip down whatever back roads please you.

We honor our twentieth anniversary with a search for great quoz.

And we will do so in discomfort; we will be travelling in an ancient panel van that was designed to haul lumber, so we’re getting a mattress to sleep in an unheated vehicle with no bathroom and maaaaaybe a camper stove if we can borrow one… but isn’t that the thrill of it? To see how we survive in a new environment?

It’ll be ten days. But time stretches on the road. And we’ll have our dog, and we’ll have things go wrong, but they will be new things to go wrong and isn’t that the point of a living breathing relationship?

It may be wretched. It may be life-changing. It may be, as is so frequent, both at once.

But it’ll be something we do together.

Big Nature, here we come.

Happy Vanniversary, Gini. I love you.

(And I totally wasn’t drunk.)

When The Band Refuses To Play

You have this awesome nightclub down the street. Two or three times a week, all your favorite bands play there – all at once, four or five bands getting up on stage to collaborate and syncopate and orchestrate.

Why wouldn’t you head there with all your friends? It’s the best kind of party – people you love, music you adore.

You’ve been going there for – oh, god, you can’t even remember how long. But the best part is watching your favorite band’s singer do his stuff.

That singer is magical, man, with the moves like Jagger, that voice that howls like the wind through October trees, that ability to reach out and hold the whole crowd in the palm of his hand. Whenever he gets up on stage, you know the best part of the night has arrived.

Now, of course, he’s not everybody’s favorite singer, and there are nights when the other bands do it more for you. But you’ve been coming here for years, decades, and this cat is who you rely on. Sometimes you’re feeling low, not in the mood to party, and thoughts of this fella leaping up onto the risers is what gets you out of bed to shake those blues away.

And he’s always there. Always, always there. To the point where you don’t even question his existence – he’s just gonna be on stage if you go to that club you love.

Until he’s not.

Because one night, that singer’s a little shy. The band vamps for a bit, playing his intro music, and you’re like “That’s weird” but then he struts onto the stage and you almost forget it.


But a couple of months later, there’s a bigger awkwardness where the band vamps for, like, twenty minutes, just this unexpected musical jam session where everyone in the club keeps looking off-stage in the hopes that the singer shows up – and eventually he does, and it’s an okay set but what the hell was that?

Yet that’s the weird thing: most nights, the singer shows up. He’s still a machine; ninety-five nights out of a hundred, he’s playing his heart out. But you’re so tense wondering if there’s gonna be that impatient band vamping that you start to tune out the other bands playing that night. It’s hard to relax and get into it if you know the end of the night is gonna be not the musical crescendo you wanted but this long, wheezing build-up that you spend the whole night looking backstage, seeing how the singer’s doing that evening.

And then the awful night comes up when the band plays for half an hour, strumming the guitars until their fingers bleed, and the singer doesn’t show up.

You didn’t even know that was possible.

And now that anticipation gets worse, because the club isn’t bad – you’ve still got all those other bands you love hearing – but for as long as you can remember you got that thrill of hearing your favorite singer croon you out, and now he’s usually there but the rest of the night has changed. You have to focus on different bands, struggle for a new kind of enjoyment, because maybe your favorite band might be off-stage tonight and you’re used to planning your evening around him and now he’s unreliable, that jerk.

More troublesome: Some of your best friends really, really liked that singer. He was the main reason they showed up to the club. And when that singer doesn’t play, they look to you confused and you feel weirdly guilty about it even though it’s not really your fault.

So you talk to your therapist about it. And she’s like, “This is completely normal for a man who’s been going to clubs as long as you have. In fact, your singer’s pretty healthy, it’s just that you’ve been really, really into music all your life and now you have to deal with the kinds of clubs that other men often go to.”

And you’re like, “But I want my singer back.”

And she’s like, “There are pills that can get him back.”

And you’re like, “No, the point is that I want my singer without the pills.”

And for weeks after that, spammers start sending you emails telling you how they totally know ways to get your singer back, just send like a billion dollars and this rhino horn extract will surely lure your singer back on stage.

And all the while you’ve got friends who are like, “Come on, man, your devotion to that singer is a little egotistic, isn’t it? We’ve been going to different clubs, clubs where they don’t even have singers and to think that a band needs a singer to be a real band is just some antiquated macho bullshit. Come on, pick up a ukelele.”

And you’re sitting there trying to explain that yes, you know that the singer isn’t the focus point of every band and you totally respect those all-acoustic bands, but for you the singer was the best part and it’s not that you’re saying that everyone has to have a singer but your singer is very dear to you and as such you’re gonna worry about his health.

But your therapist is right: the club is still super fun. The bands are still great to sing along to. You just have to develop a greater appreciation for the other bands, because he’s probably coming but you’ve gotta come to terms with the fact that your singer might not arrive to bring the night to a fine climax.

And for some reason, as you start to talk about this, you find it very important to stress that your singer’s in pretty good shape for a man your age, if you come to the club for some singerual activity you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a singer all up in your face, which is ridiculous because music is more than a singer, but for some reason a lot of bands don’t like to admit that sometimes their singer conks out.

The singer’s not important, really. It’s just… a transition. And you’re getting to appreciate different kinds of music, which is great, but deep down there’s a part of you that just wishes that goddamned singer would never miss his mark.

This essay has been a metaphor. It’s subtle. You may have missed it.

Living The Doritos Lifestyle (And Why It’ll Stuff Your Belly And Sap Your Dreams)

A friend of mine was complaining about videogames – specifically, open-world videogames. Because yes, technically, you’ve been given all of this free space to wander, an infinite number of possibilities…

…yet all the missions boil down to “Go here and kill these people” or “Go here and touch this thing” or “Go here and kill these people so you can touch this thing.” If you’re lucky they dress it up in different narrative clothing – that thing you have to touch is a bomb switch to save the orphanage from being blown up, or it’s twenty bear asses – but mechanically, it’s all pretty much identical.

I agreed with him. And yet I’ve beaten all the Elder Scrolls and Fallouts out there, ticking off quest after quest until all the quests are checked.

And I wondered: Is that fun?

And the answer is: Sorta.

I’ll admit it: I have a lot more enjoyment in the early stages of any videogame – the parts where I’m still working out what strategies are optimal, what these controls do, what my powers are or will be. And then, invariably, I get to the level where I’ve found my killer strategies, and…

It’s Dorito-eating time.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Doritos, but let’s be honest: only the most dedicated of stoners savors a Dorito. Mostly you stuff them into your face because the taste is familiar, and they’re just enough of a burst of taste that it triggers some sense of satiation within you – but, importantly, not enough taste to feel you’ve had enough.

I think a lot of us have arrived at the bottom of a bag of Doritos by surprise – we didn’t think we were munching that many. Because Doritos are eating without being engaged.

Likewise, lots of videogame quests are designed to fill that “You’re playing something just engaging enough to feel like you’re accomplishing something, but not enough that you’ll get exhausted and quit.” Is it good? Well, like the Doritos, after a while you do it without paying full attention, so “good” is a weird definition. I mean, a lot of the time people eat the Doritos on some form of autopilot because it’s there and it’s something….

And so are those videogame quests. Will you remember them a year or even a month from now? No. Are they interesting? Well, interesting enough. They’ll let you slide through an evening in a sort of meditative trance. But when the spell is done, there you are, three hours gone and a couple of levels higher but not much has happened.

A lot of modern culture is designed around Doritos-style entertainment. The people at Doritos know how to create a chip that would be flavorful enough to shock you out of eating more. But that would mean that you would eat less Doritos, so they purposely engineer all that cool ranch flavor to ensure that the taste sails in between those shoals of “too bland to eat” and “so interesting there’s a finite amount you can consume.”

Savoring an experience takes focus, and effort – at least for most of us. And when we get home at the end of a hard work day, there’s the question of whether we want to eat one perfect piece of cheese that will fulfill us but we have to concentrate on, or just chow down on what’s there today and get full without effort.

But remember: you’ve got a whole marketing department that’s playing to your exhaustion.

This isn’t a condemnation of the Doritos lifestyle, though. We all have days where we want that comfort reading – those simple romance stories or potboiler fantasy novels where we know what we’re getting, and it’s our brain-goes-on-autopilot treat. I mean, I’ve got my level 82 dude on Fallout 4 because hey, I enjoy my own Doritos gaming moments.

But if you’re not careful, your whole life can slide into that Doritos crunch. You can fall into a repetitive numbness where you watch the Doritos reality shows and play the Doritos quests and eat the Doritos bags and then wonder at the end of the day why you feel vaguely sick from overeating but have never felt satisfied.

The answer is that sometimes, you gotta break free and turn the brain on for a bit so you can ramp your appreciation neurons all the way to the max, spiking out on joy so your brain can say, “YES, THAT’S IT, I’VE HIT IT, NOW I GOTTA SLEEP THANKS.”

Otherwise, in the Doritos lifestyle, you never sleep. You just… drift off. And the thin dreams you can grab are the dreams of an uncomfortably full belly attempting to digest something that’s really ultimately not healthy.