Thursday, May 26, 2011

Evaluating Hookers: not all performance reviews go through HR

 In my early twenties I worked various jobs at several chain hotels. I started as a bellman while I was still in college, moved up to the front desk, and then took over night audit duties when I accidentally caught the previous night auditor stealing. After a year I got offered an assistant manager position at a new inn my company was opening near Toledo.

I packed everything I owned into the trunk of a '64 Plymouth Valiant—an easy task since my possessions at the time consisted of half a dozen LP’s, a tenor saxophone, some patent leather boots with stacked wooden heels, and too many pairs of bell-bottom pants to claim without some embarrassment.
I moved into the bridal suite of the hotel. My boss figured there wouldn't be much call for it by paying guests since Toledo was not then, nor ever likely to be, a prime honeymoon destination.
From that point forward, my life became absorbed by work. Since I lived on the property, I was always available. I wouldn't say I was merely 'on-call' since I was already at work...all the time. Fortunately I was young and resilient and a little stupid, else the routine would have burned me out in short order. As it was I quickly developed a warped perspective on reality that was defined not just by the physical borders of my domain, but by the narrow limits of what is, for lack of better terminology, normal behavior at an interstate motor hotel. Besides my boss, who was himself more than a little warped, the bulk of my human contact consisted of business travelers, couples shacking up, barflies, conventioneers, and musicians in the bands that performed in the lounge. This is not a collection of humanity destined to keep one grounded in reality.
It is not surprising then that I did not find it unusual when my boss offered to procure me a prostitute. It wasn't meant to be a favor or a reward for a job well done or an inducement to sink to his level of personal depravity. It was to be, so to speak, a test drive. He was thinking about hiring her to help induce a banker to make a loan to our company. He thought I could give him an evaluation of her services before he committed to paying her to give the banker an ego boost. I guess he wanted to make sure she wouldn't be a disappointment.
I don't know how he thought this was going to help with the loan processing. Maybe his thinking was that if the banker had a near-girlfriend-experience he would want to come back on a regular basis and that, under those circumstances, making the loan would give him an excuse to do that. The banker was in North Carolina, so presumably he could get the whole sordid business of wining and dining the girl on his expense report while we would continue to pay her professional fees. The banker was not supposed to know that his romantic interlude was with a professional.
There was a particular young woman my boss had in mind. She had been recommended by a local business owner. I saw her when she came in to interview. That's right...interview. I swear, I could not make this stuff up.
She was about as un-hooker-like as you could imagine. She was tall—6' 2” in her bare feet, although she walked across the lobby in a pair of death-defying stilettos that put her head up in the rarefied atmosphere familiar to Sherpas. She was reed-thin and so angular that she might have been put together with an erector set, yet she moved with an incomprehensible fluid grace. Except that she was dressed in a conservative gray pantsuit, she reminded me of a giraffe. She was exotic as hell, but not the least bit attractive in the way you would expect a prostitute to be. I had no earthly idea, until my boss told me, what she was or why she was there.
My curiosity was piqued, to say the least, hardly surprising in a 20-something single man living in a bridal suite and surrounded by all manner of moral ambivalence. I wanted to see her naked. My own moral reservations were easily overwhelmed by the serendipitous confluence of raging hormones and the sudden availability of not just a sure thing, but one with a level of expertise that was guaranteed to prove enlightening. In the end though I was rescued from this folly and its probable consequences.
I'd like to say that it was prayer and reflection that saved me, but it was not. It was rather the leering impropriety of my boss's enthusiasm for the project that put me off. I had already learned not to trust him. He was an insensitive lout, a borderline drunk, a racist, a misogynist, and a boor.
He once told me with a straight face that white people who grew up where he did in East Texas, even though they peppered their speech with racial epithets, were actually less bigoted than people from, say, Pennsylvania, whose speech may have been politically correct but who still took every opportunity to insure that minorities did not get the same advantages as they did. This was not a do-as-I-do-not-as-I-say kind of lesson. He still thought it was appropriate to deny minorities the fullness of life in America. He just thought it was mean spirited to pretend otherwise. Far better in his opinion that everyone should know exactly where they stood.
His lack of respect for women was even more pronounced than his racism. He treated his wife like dirt. She was a lovely woman, a good mother to his children, attractive and lively. I never once heard him say anything complimentary to her or about her. He talked to her in public and private as if she were some vacuous slattern committed to preventing him reaching his true potential. He complained about her incessantly, and shared intimate details of their sex life that would have caused her to hide in the closet had she known about it.
In the short course of our association, he said two things to me about women that were so vile I cannot to this day, some 40 years later, recall them without cringing. I will not repeat them here. You can't make me.
Knowing all this, I knew that there would be two debriefings if I availed myself of the prostitute's services—one for me and one for her. It was her's that worried me. I knew of a certainty that whatever she had to say about me afterward, good, bad or indifferent, it would be filed away in the most perverse recesses of my boss's mind and come back to haunt my existence at the most inopportune imaginable time.
So, in the end, I opted out of the test drive. Curious as I might have been, there was no percentage for me in the enterprise. It was a thing bound to end in regret. That was of course the precise moment at which my boss decided that I must be gay. Oh well.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Derby Hats and Julep Jive

This is the hat I made for my sister-in-law for a derby party last weekend. It won first prize. She wanted a fresh bloom from her sister's garden. It took me longer to find this magnolia blossom than it did to assemble the hat.

 My wife and her sisters are from Kentucky. As Kentucky girls, they have an affinity for all things Bluegrass, and this naturally includes the preeminent Kentucky event, the Kentucky Derby. Wherever they are, the girls love to throw a derby party. I've been to more than I can count. I went to one last weekend.
I like a derby party. I like horse racing. I used to be a pretty fair handicapper. Early in my working life I was doing the night audit at a chain hotel in Lanham, Maryland. Every day I'd get off work at 7:00 a.m., pore over the Racing Form at breakfast, and head out to the Bowie race track to play the ponies. It was a good time for me. Life was full and interesting. I was well on my way to becoming a punter of some note when I decided to change course, finish my education, and become a responsible adult instead. Sometimes I wonder what would have become of me if I'd kept following the horses. Probably I would have come to no good end—broke, depressed, and drinking too much...Oh, wait!
A lot of arcane horse knowledge isn't of much use at a derby party. People who go to derby parties aren't there for the horse racing. They are there for the food and the drinks and the fancy hats. It's just as well because a good handicapper is handicapped by a field of 20 young and little-tested thoroughbreds. Everybody likes to pick a winner, even the pros, but most of the money bet on big races like the Derby is bet by rank amateurs. The real horse players stay home on Derby day, just like the real drinkers stay home on New Year's Eve. It's just too hard to compete with the foolishness.
Fortunately for me, I also like the food, the beverages, and the fancy hats, even though all of these things, at least as they relate to Derby Day, are just humble country fare tarted up to look genteel. Among the favorites:
  • Burgoo—this is nothing more than stew, and is a featured dish at a lot of barbecue joints and church suppers throughout Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. It was originally made with whatever ingredients came readily to hand. Its humble origins are evident in old-time recipes, which often feature squirrel, opossum, and venison. Modern versions usually contain pork, chicken, and mutton or beef. Personally I love this stuff, and I often make a big pot to take to the derby parties to which I am invited. It is hearty and delicious and it will feed an average family for a week before anyone gets really tired of it. It is not genteel, however, until you serve it up in tiny cups with tiny spoons to people who have traveled from the far-flung reaches of the globe to watch spindly horses race their hearts out. It helps if you pronounce it in such a way as to make it sound vaguely French. It also helps if, as is usually the case at the Kentucky Derby, people start drinking really early
  • Hot Browns—the quintessential Kentucky open-faced sandwich, named for Louisville's Brown hotel where it was first served in 1926. Toast and a layer of sliced turkey breast are topped with bacon, slathered in mornay sauce, sprinkled with parmesan cheese, and broiled until the sauce starts to brown. The sandwich is then topped with tomato or pimiento, although many folks do this before the broiling. It hardly matters because it is almost impossible to screw one of these up. Some are better than others, naturally, but unless you're doing a side-by-side comparison, you won't notice the difference. The flavor is nearly always sublime. The hot brown's claim to gentility lies in the use of the mornay sauce, which is a bechamel sauce with grated cheese—usually a combination of gruyere and parmesan. This certainly ennobles a proper hot brown's DNA, but the fact is that many places serve them using a white cheddar or American cheese sauce, and only a fussy purist would argue with the result, especially on Derby Day when, as I have already pointed out, the drinking begins early.
  • Mint Juleps—bourbon for girls. This is perhaps the most egregious gentrification associated with the Derby. A mint julep consists of only 4 ingredients: bourbon, sugar, fresh mint, and ice. The mint is muddled in the bottom of a tumbler with a teaspoon of sugar. Cracked ice is added to fill the tumbler nearly full. Then the bourbon is poured in to fill the glass. The result is garnished with a fresh mint sprig. The bourbon makes this a potent and definitively Southern concoction. The ice, sugar, and mint are meant to make it palatable to women. Women will not usually sip (or gulp) bourbon straight. It's not lady-like. But they will sip a julep through a straw and giggle behind their hands and under their great canopied hats. Men like to have their women drinking on special occasions, and the Derby calls out for a certain amount of revelry, celebrating as it does things that are mostly made fun of in the other 49 states the rest of the year. On Derby Day everyone wants to be from Kentucky in much the same way that everyone wants to be Irish for St. Paddy's. This is why celebrities show up in droves for the Derby. They want to be associated, if only for the day, with the high-pedigree traditions of the Old South on the only day of the year when everyone agrees to overlook it's dark, hide-bound excesses. The mint julep is a perfect symbol of this brief truce between the homespun and the cultured, the plain and the cultivated, because, bottom line, a mint julep is just 'corn squeezins' in drag.
  • The Hats—art in adornment. There is something about a woman in a hat. Maybe it's the added mystery created by concealing the upper parts of their faces in shadow. Maybe it's the way a hat magnifies the slightest nod or tilt of the head or arched brow, into a dramatic expression. A woman is more sophisticated, alluring, and beautiful when she is under a hat than when she is not. A baseball cap will do, or a pillbox with a veil, or a fascinator with a long feather curling out of it like a scimitar. They're all good in my book, but a derby hat, a great, floppy, wide-brimmed parade float of a hat is unparalleled in this regard. Apparently I am not alone in thinking this. There is a lot of media coverage of the hats on Derby Day. The day after the Derby, lists are published in newspapers and shown on TV and on the Internet of the best and worst of the hats. Some people tune into the Derby coverage just to see the hats in much the same way that people who don't care a fig about sports watch the Superbowl for the commercials. The hats are a phenomenon unto themselves. Derby hats are the pinnacle of the milliner's art. It would not surprise me to learn that many women start thinking about next year's hat the day after the current year's Derby. Certainly some of them need to start saving up for their hat that far in advance, for a stunning, custom-made hat by a name designer can cost a small fortune—as much as a good serviceable horse. Still it is wise to keep in mind that what is now viewed by many, including me, as high artistic expression, had its beginnings in a simple bonnet with a wide enough brim to keep the sun from raising up freckles on the china white shoulders of Louisville belles.
Hunter S. Thompson wrote a funny piece on the Kentucky Derby in 1970 titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” It is widely held to be his first foray into the 'gonzo journalism' that made him at least infamous amongst the chroniclers of then contemporary life. It was first published in Scanlan's Monthly, accompanied by artwork from Ralph Steadman. I heartily recommend it to your attention.
Today almost everyone who blogs and finds themselves accountable to no one for fact checking or personal spin is practicing gonzo journalism. Just remember though, when you read something that is too profane and too personally involved to be of much use furthering your decision making, that Thompson invented this stuff when writers were still held accountable, and when he eventually killed himself, he avoided any complicity in its mainstreaming.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Competent? It Depends

Paper towels: always at the ready. We decorate with them.

 So yesterday my wife tells me that my blog's not that funny. This is a surprise to me, as I mostly think it's hilarious. I go back and read a few entries, and I think she's right. I'm not that funny—certainly not anywhere near as funny as I'd like to be.
I'm thinking about this problem while I'm trying to cook dinner. I've got some leftover yellow rice and peas that I'm going to reheat in the microwave to go with a couple of sauteed chicken cutlets. I don't want to microwave this stuff in the plastic storage container I got out of the fridge because heating stuff in those ruins them—not the food but the containers. They get etched and pitted, and you have to wonder where the missing plastic went. Actually I'm pretty sure I know where it went, and that's not something I want to be doing to myself when I've already had cancer once—not that uninhibited microwaving was the cause necessarily, but you never know so it's probably best to err on the side of caution. I decide to dump the rice and peas into a ceramic bowl and heat them up in that, only instead of spooning the rice and peas into the bowl, which would be the sane thing to do, I put the bowl, which is round, upside down on top of the storage container, which is square, and then I turn them both over at the same time so that the bowl is now on the bottom and the storage container is now on the top. As you may have surmised I now have a huge puddle of pea juice all over the counter that just spilled out of the gaps between the square container and the round bowl.
I really hate spillage. It's not just that spilling things slows you down, which it does because you have to clean it up before you can get on with your life. It's that spillage is evidence of incompetence. Wherever you see a puddle of something other than rain, you know someone has screwed up. Often, I find, it has been me. I leave evidence all over the place. There is evidence on the counter tops, on the furniture, on the floors, on my shirt. There is plenty more in the bathroom, but I don't even want to talk about that. Just based on spillage alone you would have to conclude that I am no longer a capable human being, that the simplest of tasks are now beyond me.
This is when it occurs to me that I am wasting my time writing stuff down to amuse myself, and hoping that other people will find it funny or edifying, and visit here in sufficient numbers that I can make some money. What I need to be doing instead is having my wife follow me around with a video camera to document my gradual slide into decrepitude. We will be rich in no time. The ad revenues from paper towel manufacturers alone will buy us a new house. I can't even imagine how much we're going to get from the folks over at Depends. I'll finally be able to buy that Aston Martin DB9 I've been wanting. I'll have to get plastic seat covers though.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Beached White Male

The Blues - not the usual province of middle-aged white males.

I was standing in the check out line at Publix the other day when I noticed a copy of Newsweek on the magazine rack. The cover article, “Dead Suit Walking” by Rick Marin and Tony Dokoupil, caught my attention. The cover lead posed the question, “Can manhood survive the recession?” The picture featured a hapless middle aged white guy pasted to the wall under a gigantic 'X' of electrical tape. I felt an immediate pang of recognition. I knew the feeling. I knew the guy. He was me. Son of a bitch! I made the cover of Newsweek!
Of course I had mixed emotions about this development. It's nice to have your plight recognized in a national forum—not so nice to have a plight that requires recognition. It was kind of like when I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal on Thanksgiving Day last year in an article about people who had filed for bankruptcy. My problems are not exactly the things that I want to be known for. Losing is not the thing that I want to characterize my fifteen minutes of fame, although I have to consider that my losing is at least marginally more respectable than Charlie Sheen's winning, and my tiny $800 a month rental house is more luxurious than Osama bin Laden's million dollar hideaway villa.
I'd rather be recognized for the breezy, personal, and engaging style of these blog posts, or the stunning vibrancy of the photos I have up on Etsy, or the amusing poignancy of the short story collection, Buses & Bears, Bullets & Stones, that I have for sale in's Kindle Store for a paltry 99 cents. Instead, it seems, my singular defining fate is to serve as poster boy for Newsweek's 'Beached White Males' who've been made 'toast' by long term joblessness.
The gist of the article seems to be that we educated white males, once at the top of the food chain, are ill equipped to deal with our new station at the bottom. We're not used to coping with lack of privilege. We don't know how.
What's worse, nobody cares much. Our wives and children might care a little, at least to the extent they still depend on us to marshal our paternalism, but everyone else thinks we've got what was coming to us. We've been too long screwing the world up and skimming the cream for ourselves while everyone else has suffered for our ascendancy.
Now we're to be washed up on the shores of some vacation paradise to rot...and good riddance to us. Maybe this is just the way things are. Maybe it's even fair. We had our turn. Now it's time for somebody else to take their shot.
And maybe it's retribution. Several months ago I posted a comment at on an accounting forum, only to have some Gen Y hothead take me to task for causing all his problems. He blamed my generation for the failure of everything from the War in Iraq to the dismal financial condition of Social Security. When I suggested that maybe he should have paid closer attention in his high-school history classes if he actually thought that Baby Boomers had created the Social Security Administration, he responded by changing his online identity to 'ihatejonahgibson'. For a while I thought I was on the road to fame and fortune, having scored my first public detractor, but it seems that I have outlived him in cyberspace. I don't know whether to be happy or sad about that.
My problem is that I personally have not seen much in the way of cream that we middle-aged white guys are supposed to have skimmed for ourselves. I worked my ass off for 40 years, suffered abuse and disrespect and a monumental lack of appreciation, and today I've got nothing to show for it. It's disheartening to find out that this is a common experience.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bin Laden Goes to His Just Reward

 Now that Osama Bin Laden has been killed and flung into the sea, it may be appropriate to speculate on the disposition of his immortal soul. I'm sure that most of Bin Laden's loyal followers think that he is now enjoying his allotment of 72 virgins, although just why they think the primary attraction of Heaven is the despoiling of virgins is beyond my understanding. Bin Laden's detractors on the other hand, especially those who are Christian, are no doubt comforted by visions of him roasting in Hell and begging for a drop of water to soothe his parched tongue.
Those who do not believe in Hell and those who may have been persuaded by Pastor Rob Bell's controversial new best seller, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, that Hell may not exist, will be left scratching their heads. It is easy for most of us to imagine that Bin Laden ranks in the company of Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin, Pol Pot and sundry other murderous despots when it comes to people we would not expect to be roaming the streets of Heaven, whether or not he has an entourage of virgins in tow. Most of us just don't want to believe that he could get himself admitted, no matter what we profess to believe are the entrance requirements.
An excellent piece in Time magazine about Bell's book starts like this:
As part of a series on peacemaking, in late 2007, Pastor Rob Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church put on an art exhibit about the search for peace in a broken world. It was just the kind of avant-garde project that had helped power Mars Hill's growth (the Michigan church attracts 7,000 people each Sunday) as a nontraditional congregation that emphasizes discussion rather than dogmatic teaching. An artist in the show had included a quotation from Mohandas Gandhi. Hardly a controversial touch, one would have thought. But one would have been wrong.
A visitor to the exhibit had stuck a note next to the Gandhi quotation: "Reality check: He's in hell." Bell was struck.
Really? he recalls thinking.
Gandhi's in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?
Apparently someone doesn't want to find Ghandi in Heaven either. I'm as baffled by attitudes like this as Bell. I think Ghandi has a legitimate claim to a certain moral purity, and regardless of his sins and his faults, he left the world a way better place than he found it, and he paid the ultimate price for his beliefs.
There's no doubt in my mind that Ghandi should rank higher than Bin Laden on a list of people we would like to see in Heaven, but I realize that there are many others who believe otherwise. This is precisely why judgment is best left to the Lord who, after all, reserves it for Himself.
We are not up to the task. We can't agree on the most basic things. In my own family, where everybody loves everybody else and disagreements are kept to a minimum, there is a raging debate on whether or not brownies ought to contain nuts. My personal opinion is, hell yes, brownies ought to contain nuts, and plenty of them. Hell is where they serve brownies without nuts. When you enter the gates of Heaven, though, they give you a brownie with nuts just so you'll know where you are.
Now if my family cannot agree on something as basic and inconsequential as nuts in brownies, how in the world can we humans agree on who should get into Heaven and who shouldn't? The closest we come is the agreement, in principle at least, that whoever disagrees with us on this particular issue ought to go to Hell. This seems to me to summarize the position of whoever wrote the note at Mars Hill Bible Church about Ghandi. If we're all right about this, then Hell is going to be a bustling community while Heaven is going to be hard pressed to find 72 reasonably attractive women, let alone virgins.
On the other hand, if we're all wrong, then Heaven is going to be full up with people we don't think deserve to be there. Just so we're all clear where I stand, I'll be happy to see Ghandi in Heaven. I'll even rejoice to see Christopher Hitchens there, although, since he is an avowed, un-cowed and unrepentant athiest, I am probably in a minority in that regard. Still, Hitchens has done more to improve intelligent discourse on our planet than most of the true believers that I know, so I think he at least deserves a shot. He probably wouldn't agree, at least not if it meant he had to give up his unbelief, but I don't think that ought to be held against him.
Bin Laden is another matter for me. I'm pretty egalitarian and even forgiving by nature, but I don't want to rub elbows with anyone in Heaven who thought it was good policy to murder innocents in order to make a point. If, by some quirk of logic in the dispensing of Divine Justice, Bin Laden does make it into Heaven, my sincere hope is that, at a minimum, all his virgins look like Danny DeVito in drag...or, even better, like James Garfield, the stunning, miraculous, and probably virginal bit of taxidermy who may be seen in a wedding veil over at The Bloggess.