Fondly Remembering The Wrong Fat Bear Week

Every summer, my grandparents took the entire family to Provincetown for a vacation. I think it was because they loved lighthouses.

Except that Provincetown was the biggest East Coast gay hotspot in the 1980s, and so there were assless leather chaps and butch lesbians a-go-go. Which was not a downside, from my perspective – I loved the energy there, the exultant love of some people who didn’t get to be themselves much finally breaking out for a weekend without fear.

To this day, I don’t know whether my grandparents were okay with gay people or just cheerfully oblivious, as was their wont. It’s entirely possible they saw all the rainbow flags and hugging men and just thought “Oooh, a party.”

That said, Provincetown remained a magical city in my memory, and I was super glad when my family planned a group trip after my grandparents passed on – I could bring my own daughter to see the fun!

And we arrived at the perfect week:

Bear week.

Yes, Provincetown has a week specifically designed for hairy, beer-bellied dudes, and I strode oblivious into the heart of it, unaware of all the ramifications.

Within an instant I was a dude magnet, with all sorts of men striking up happy conversations. People were checking me out as I walked by; I had, without changing anything about myself, become the preferred archetype, my body now the pinnacle of attraction.

Which was nice! I was in no position to do anything about it, of course, as I was with my family, but it was a sea change, seeing how someone like me could be considered a legitimate object of desire.

This all hit its highlight when I got into a mock argument with Gini, and she jokingly said, “Don’t think I won’t leave you for another man,” followed by me saying, “Oh, you picked the wrong place to make that threat.”

But the best part was the lost Asian man.

See, we had a hotel where we had to walk to Provincetown, about a mile and a half walk – a pleasant trip as the remote bed-and-breakfasts and residential homes turned into candle shops and clothing stores and advertisements for whale watches.

We were walking back at night, just after the big nightlife had geared up, when a confused Asian dude on a bike pulled up next to us. He was skinny, wore big glasses, spoke very little English, yet his face was very expressive, especially in the glow of the flashlight he’d affixed to his bike handles.

“Where… Provincetown?” he said, waving in huge circles.

We indicated, through a series of gestures, that there was a dogleg curve ahead, but basically it was a straight shot through and if he kept going forward he’d get downtown.

He nodded, taking it all in, then frowned and risked a question:

“Many bear there?”

It took us a moment to process, but when we did we smiled and said, “Oh, yes. Many bear there.”

His face broke out in a wide grin, his head bobbing, and he repeated after us in a languid dream-voice: “Many bear. Many bear.” And with that, we gave him a merry wave and he pedalled off into the darkness.

You beautiful twink, I hope you found every goddamned bear you wanted that weekend. You deserved it.

My Personal Definition of Respect

I once got into an argument with a friend of mine who told me that she could never play along with her friends’ silly concerns. “If I don’t agree with what they need, I can’t give it to ’em.”

“Really?” I asked. “So if your roommate’s afraid of having the house broken into, you’re not gonna bother to lock the door when you get home at night?”

“Not if it’s a safe neighborhood, no.”

“But it doesn’t cost you anything to lock the door when you get home. And if it makes your roommate feel better – “

“It costs me having to encourage a behavior I think is foolish,” she snapped. “They want me to lock the door? They need to convince me there’s a reason.”

That’s when I started to devise what I thought “respect” looked like.

Because frankly, being roommates with my friend sounded exhausting. I’m terrified of spiders, and having to justify that arachnophobia on a rational basis would be impossible. If she didn’t believe I had food allergies, I’d have to go to the mat for her, probably with a doctor’s note. Hey, please don’t feed human food to my dog, oh wait, she thinks it’s cute teaching the dog to beg.

My friend basically said – and seemed to believe – that unless I could logically debate her into sharing all of my opinions, she wouldn’t bother to make room for mine.

Admittedly, the reason she was my friend is that she generally held sensible opinions – she wasn’t anti-vaxxer or a flat-earther or anything like that, and honestly, I doubt she’d shrug off someone’s gluten sensitivity. But that whole idea that she wouldn’t make small changes to make my life better unless we were simpatico on a given topic, well…

That felt disrespectful.

Plus there’s a whole bunch of preferences that aren’t necessarily logical, but just make people happy. Which way the toilet roll goes up. How you squeeze the toothpaste tube. How much warning you give someone before having guests over.

Having to convince my friend that all of those were somehow logically correct felt like, well, busywork.

It should be enough to say, “That makes me unhappy,” and have that be sufficient to have them go, “Oh, wow, sorry about that.”

And after a while, I had devised my definition of “respect,” which was:

“The ability of someone to tolerate small changes in their life simply to make the person they respect happy.”

Now, the reason I’m mentioning this is because, well, WORLDWIDE KILLER PLAGUE. And I’m hearing lots of awful stories about roommates going, “Well, I don’t think the risk is that bad” and sneaking out to bars or lovers or both, then coming home carrying potential disease around potentially very susceptible people.

And for me, respect comes in two forms:

1) The Small Change Of Modified Behavior.
If it’s a low- to middling-effort change, then I think things like “locking the doors when you get home” or “wearing masks” are a pretty respectful thing to do. Sure, you don’t think it’s dangerous, but at the very least it’s something that stresses your friend out, so… you modify your behavior so they’re not stressed.

Because the idea that “I can only adapt to your behavior if I agree with it” is a form of solipsism. The world is a big place, and not all of your concerns are rational, even if you think they are.

(God save us from the Perfectly Rational Person, because they’re never Perfectly Rational – they’ve just learned to wrap all their crappy preferences up in a loathsome coating of High School Debate Team Logic.)

Sometimes you look at the toothbrush you left out on the counter last night and go, “Yeah, it’s logically foolish that someone doesn’t want to look at my dirty toothbrush because I’ll just take it out of the cabinet again eight hours later, but… this behavior really seems to bug ’em, so I’ll put my toothbrush away after each time I brush.”

“Respect” is not “sharing those values.” “Respect” is “learning to work with those values, even if you don’t understand them.”

But then there’s also:

2) The Small Change Of Active Confrontation.
Sometimes the change your friends/roommates/relatives want you to make is too big for you to swallow, either individually – “I want you to never see your lover under any circumstances until the pandemic is over” – or as the result of an accreted mass of small changes, like having to put the toothbrush away AND then clean out the sink AND wash the toilet AND straighten the towels AND wave some Lysol around every time you walk into the bathroom.

At which point, you owe them the respect of telling them you’re not going to make that change.

Look, maybe your roommate is being too uptight about this worldwide death-event, I dunno. But “respect” doesn’t consist of “treating your roommate like some inconvenience to be worked around,” where you sneak out and lie about what you did and see your lover in places you hope to God they won’t find out.

Respect is hitting them up, face to face, to say, “Look, I know this stresses you out but I can’t live with those restrictions. So here’s what I’m gonna do. You plan your reactions.”

That’s not always gonna be pleasant for you, mind. Your roommate’s reaction might be, “Okay, find a new place to live by the first of next month.” But that’s an honest, open dialogue, not some bitter volcano of fabrications waiting to explode.

And hey, maybe that can lead to better compromises! Maybe your roommate doesn’t know that your lover’s been isolated for two weeks and you’re actually forming a safe bubble. Maybe your roommate might feel more comfortable if your lover gets tested. There’s other ways to handle conflict, and being open about them allows for changes that “hiding stuff” does not.

But sometimes, you have….

3) You Have To Hide Things Because You Can’t Tell Them.
Your abusive partner will hurt you if they find out they’ve consulted your friend for advice. Your racist uncle will go ballistic if he finds out you’ve gone to Black Lives Matter protests. Your parents will send you to conversion therapy if they find out you’re dating that boy.

These are perfectly acceptable protective behaviors to take! You need to make sure you’re safe, and it’s not always possible to disclose behavior, particularly to irrational people.

But the danger is that, in adapting to this dysfunctional environment, you come to believe you’re still respecting these people.

You’re not. You’re concealing portions of yourself from dangerous people. That’s good. But if you continue to believe that your deception is, in some way, respect, then you’re going to fuck up your healthy relationships if and when you find them.

The problem with doing end-runs around people is that it’s a lot easier than being honest or changing your behavior… and it’s also really easy to justify doing end-runs. You’re protecting their feelings! You’re dodging some jerk’s judgment! You maybe should talk to them, but… heck with it, let’s conceal, don’t feel.

Remember those positive benefits that came out at the end of the last section – the one where you can hammer out productive compromises and exchange information so you both better understand how the other person feels?

That never happens if you treat them like an obstacle, like a person.

So. Yeah, if someone’s in a position to harm you, maybe you should treat them like an obstacle. But if you then think you’re respecting your obstacle-person, you’re gonna find that the behavior that allowed you to survive dysfunctional relationships is the exact same behavior that will destroy your healthy ones.

Good luck.

Mad respect to y’all.

The Ambition Of The Open Road

We were in a van, and our van was everything.

We had four days of hard driving, Ohio to California, and we had built the van so it was a COVID-free microcosm. We’d hammered together a wooden platform with joists to place our mattress on, so we had a firm place to sleep. We had packed charge stations for Gini’s CPAP machine, these huge things we powered off the charge cable stuffed into the cigarette lighter, which was in turn powered by this ancient 1993 Ford Econoline engine.

We stopped for gas; the only outside infusions. Everything else was self-contained; the ten-gallon jugs of water, the giant bags of trail mix, the phones endlessly playing videos over a radio that continually blared its new and sexy tech of “MP3 PLAYER INCLUDED!”.

And we drove for four days.

The road never ended.

It’s impossible to really imagine how big America is until you put the time into traversing it. We’d have our heels planted on the accelerator until our ankles ached, watching the distant horizon seem impossibly small and befogged, and we’d get there and find even more to go.

The landscape changed; the gently rolling fields of Kansas, the harsh alkali pools of Wyoming, the unearthly red rocks of Colorado, the salt flats of Utah, the mighty forests of California. We drove through rain and a sky blackened by wildfire. We drove through cities, their signs promising gas and good food and entertainment, and then those gave way to the huge empty spaces where you could drive two hours and not see a gas station.

It was a vast emptiness.

Except it wasn’t.

There was the road.

And I think of how long it would take me to build a road. We live on a small block in a small suburb outside of Cleveland, and if they said to me, “You have to resurface that road,” it would take me months, maybe years, because even a block is huge compared to a man.

If they’d said “Build a road out of nothing,” just dig down to make a stable surface and then pour the underpinnings for a road that’ll last through the softening summer heat and the buckling cold of winter, it might be a decade’s project, even with the big power equipment, because the landscape is deep and men are small.

Yet wherever we went, there was the road.

Mountains had been blasted aside to make room for the road. Small armies had been brought out to these distant deserts to lay the road. The road was unstoppable, this extrusion of manpower and technology and sheer goddamned will, the work of people who said “I am building an impossible path from one coast to another,” and not only did this once, but did it so many times that America is criss-crossed with these incredible guidelines through harsh lands that would kill you without even noticing your moldering bones.

The road never stopped.

The road was a miracle. One of the greatest works we’ve possibly ever made.

And I kept thinking about the internet arguments I got into, the ones that said that free enterprise is the only solution, that government always fails, that you gotta leave these tasks up to some lucky shmuck who had rich parents who could float them enough massive loans to nourish their hard work into billions.

But no company was ever going to build these roads. They’d have to have put tolls on every mile to make them marginally profitable, tolls nobody in their right mind would pay. This wasn’t like the railroads, where you could make profits off of long freight.

These roads were basically, “It’s going to cost us an unimaginable amount of money to connect these distant towns, but we think there’s more benefit than an immediate profit.”

And so the government got to.

It’s amazing. It’s herculean. It’s engineering and science and competence all wrapped up in a continual spooling package that nobody even thinks of as a triumph any more because we did it, what’s the big deal guys, it exists and by the way the government is incompetent and inefficient and we need to drown it in a bathtub.

But there is a government that can do mighty labors, when we expect it to. There’s a government that, in the time of the Founding Fathers, went to huge efforts to bring newspapers to remote, half-forgotten towns because the Founding Fathers were far more zealous about the delivery of mail and news than they ever were committed to guns.

Conservatives have told us that government is useless, which it’s not – it can be inefficient, to be sure, and prone to boondoggles, and harm to all the other drawbacks of any other large-scale projects.

But at the same time, free enterprise wouldn’t have built those roads – not to the same places, not for the same driver-fed prices. Just like free enterprise isn’t bringing fiber-optic cable to rural towns; when there’s no profit, there’s not enough scale to make improvement.

That single road, all 2,000 miles of it, is one flexed muscle – a reminder that government can do great things, massive things, unthinkably beautiful and useful things when we demand it.

In a day of pandemic, where the best we can do is toss money at Fortune 500 companies and call it a day, well, that road is a useful reminder.

One might even say it’s a path to a new future.

But I wouldn’t.

I’m driving.

“I Know It Bothers You.”

Yesterday, we cleaned out the fridge – getting rid of all the old food that was slowly deliquescing at the back of the veggie drawer. We bagged it up last night, kept it inside so the possums wouldn’t get it, and then I even remembered to put it all out for the trashmen on time this morning – I was quite proud of myself.

Except. I thought the bags by the front door included the one that had been in the kitchen garbage can. So we’d gotten rid of our fridge leftovers and the usual rest-of-the-house detritus, but last week’s kitchen stuff was still there.

“I’ll bring it to the dump,” I said.

Gini flailed. “It’s just that it’d get so stinky if we left it out in the heat…”

“I’ll bring it to the dump,” I repeated. “I know it bothers you.”

Those words – “I know it bothers you” – carried a lot of weight for us. On both sides.

Because personally, no, I am not really bothered by letting garbage sit in a can at the far end of the the driveway. It’s the can that’s full of our bagged dog poop anyway, so it’s not like it smells like roses anyway, and we don’t generally go near it.

But it bothers Gini.

And part of a healthy marriage – a healthy relationship – involves me not having to be bothered personally to take care of my wife’s needs. I know she’d fret about the garbage, and she’s got a lot on her mind lately, so why not drive seven minutes out to the dump to take one more annoyance off her plate?

That fifteen-minute trip literally did nothing for my peace of mind. But I knew it would make Gini happy. And I think of so many dysfunctional relationships I’ve seen where one partner refused to do anything to relieve their partner’s stress unless they were also bothered – “Why should I change the batteries in that dying fire alarm? The random chirp doesn’t bug me!” – and man, did those not end well.

Weighing my own momentary inconvenience over a week of my wife randomly being vexed by some random garbage can seemed like a pretty good deal, all things considered.

But when I said that phrase – “It doesn’t bother me” – my wife also did some labor.

Because her knee-jerk instinct was to argue with me – that garbage can should bother me, too, I should have higher standards, she’s not prissy for being bothered by a smelly garbage can she doesn’t get within fifteen feet of on an average day.

What she realized was that there’s no right or wrong on this. And I can feel many of you tuning up your argument-hammers to take sides on this – but you’d be sailing right past the point.

The point is that I do not have to share her opinion in order to respect it.

Which is good! Because I’m mentally ill. Some random-ass things stress me out that no sane person should be bothered by! If our marriage was defined by “You must agree that all the things that make me uncomfortable are universal experiences,” then my poor wife would have to go, “Yes, having full-blown crying breakdowns before going to a convention is something everyone does!”

It’s not.

We get to be unique in our stressors.

And had she pressed the point until I not only volunteered, unasked, to bring the garbage to the dump, but also I had to agree it was an objectively valuable use of my time to do so would have probably kickstarted a fairly stupid argument that would sound a lot like “I know you’re doing everything I’m asking, but you actually need to think like I do.”

I can know it bothers her without sharing that bother, and still work proactively to help reduce her bother.

So the short version is that I ran a quick errand, and my wife feels better, and I feel better because my wife feels better. And we’ve both learned to accept that we have different things that make us uncomfortable, and we don’t have to agree as long as we act with respect.

That keeps a lot of things from getting stinky. Most notably our relationship.