Friday, April 26, 2013

Alive and Twitching

Eleven years ago I stopped eating meat.  It was easy.  People often ask: how did you do it?  Answer: I stopped putting cooked animal flesh in my mouth, that’s how.

Quitting meat was easy because I was tired of eating it.  It didn’t make me feel good anymore and while I admit that some of it was still appetizing, thirty years of steak burritos, sausage pizzas, beef sandwiches, and White Castle burgers was enough.  I was done.

If you quit something, you’ve got to be ready.  You cannot quit because you think you should or because someone tells you it is the right thing to do.  If a part of you is still enjoying the thing you quit, you won’t be a quitter for long.

When I quit smoking, I was still enjoying it.  Still, I quit despite the realization that I was in love with cigarettes.  But they certainly did not love me back.  More and more, I was feeling winded from each smoke.  A nasty cough and phlegm problem followed me through each day.  I could smell the stink on myself, in my clothes and hair.  I felt diseased.  But I loved smoking.  I loved the way it  complemented breakfast.  I loved how it made alcohol stronger.  A shot, a beer, a smoke.  That’s the natural order of things, and when the city decided to ban smoking in bars, I took it as a sign that the universe simply did not want me to smoke anymore.  That and the wheezing. 

Quitting smoking was hard, sure, definitely not the same as quitting meat.  Whereas not eating meat was simply a matter of just saying no, cigarettes had a tighter grip on me.  Stopping was a slow process that required cessation rather than the old cold turkey.  But I’m off the coffin nails.  I feel much better, thank you, and I am well aware that one single cigarette is enough to get me back on them full time.

Sum total, I smoked for a solid thirteen years.  I dabbled in high school, started for real in college, quit in the late nineties, picked it up again in the mid-aughts and kept it going until 2008, the year of the before mentioned smoking ban.  While some people maintain their habit longer, I scattered mine. But I made up for the gaps, trust me.  My brother likes to say that I packed a lifetime of smoking into a few years.  This is because I smoked so many goddamn cigarettes in a single day.  My average was a pack and a half, though I could easily venture into two packs a day if I had nothing else to do.  In the summer of 1995 when I was unemployed and people were dying from the heat, I had nothing else to do and, miraculously, enough money for two packs of cigarettes a day (that is, when I wasn’t bumming them from my friends).

My point: I tend to do things in abundance.  It’s an Italian thing.  When I cook, I cannot simply cook for one or two people.  My small meals become gargantuan.  Not so bad when you’re hungry but a problem when you’re smoking.  Two packs a day can also become three quite easily.

As difficult as quitting smoking was, and it was, I did it without too much trouble.  I cannot say the same for coffee.  Without a doubt, I am a caffeine addict.  I go mad without it.  I get headaches if I am not doused in caffeine by noon. (Once upon a time, I had to have some form of caffeine in my system by 9 AM.  I’m getting better.)  I first tasted coffee when my grandfather gave me a sip of his morning batch.  It seemed pleasing then, but there was enough sugar and cream in it to make it palatable to a child.  If you’ve read Bukowski’s Ham and Rye you may remember his description of his first taste of wine.  For him, it was rapturous.    I’ll always remember my grandfather’s coffee the way some people recall their first drink, not because, like Bukowski, I was hooked from that day on but because it seems like such an important rite of passage to being the kind of man I saw in my grandfather, the kind I wanted to emulate. 

A few years later, when I was old enough to decide that yes, I wanted to drink this stuff and, fuck it, I was old enough, I paid attention to the ways people took their coffee.  My dad took it black, which struck me as bold.  My mother skipped the sugar but added cream.  I tried to do the same but missed the sweetness, so I compromised—I drank it black with sugar (black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love).  And I watched my mother brew a pot.  The end result was a bit weak, so I played with her recipe of two scoops, upping it quite a bit.  The result was black sludge.  It didn’t drip into the pot so much as it thudded.  You could slice it with a knife.  Delicious.  I called it a pot of Joseph, it being too intense for the diminutive “Joe.” 

My mother began to notice that the coffee grounds were disappearing at an alarming rate.  She saw the used filter in the basket of the Mr. Coffee, grounds spilling over the brim and falling into the pot.  Coincidentally, I had begun to smoke unfiltered cigarettes, the tobacco often getting into my mouth.  Both of vices required that I spit out some of their excess.  Oh, my poor dentist.

I stopped drinking coffee at one point.  Actually, a few times.  Often I take it too far, like the smoking, and often it hurts.  So I decided that my stomach being so sensitive, I ought to stick to green tea, much easier on the constitution.  So I quit.  Why not?  I’d quit things before.

There is no comparison between quitting meat or smoking and quitting coffee.  Quitting coffee is a million times harder.  Day one of no coffee was horrible.  Day two was rotten.  Day three was miserable.  I could go on.  I have a thesaurus and could easily find enough synonyms, but I think you get the point.  It sucked.  Fucking sucked.  I had withdrawal symptoms: headaches, anxiety, irritability, and irrational thinking.  I saw reminders everywhere: people with their goddamn Starbucks cups; ads on the sides of buses for Starbucks; Starbucks, Starbucks, ubiquitous Starbucks.  That shit was everywhere, the reminder that I need only walk a block or two in any direction and there would a place to get me a goddamn cuppa java. 

The pounding headaches continued for weeks.  Really, it took a solid month of not drinking coffee before I felt stable.  Green tea, a delicious drink I still enjoy, provided some caffeine but it wasn’t even as sufficient as methadone is to a heroin addict.  Life without coffee made no sense whatsoever. 

But I quit.  It took a lot out of me, but I was off the stuff. 

A year passed.  Cassandra and I met some friends for lunch.  After, we walked down Milwaukee in the Wicker Park area, looking at the bodegas and shitty furniture stores that have closed down to make way for hipster shops.  We went into a Mexican bakery to get some pan dulce.  Almost immediately I smelled the coffee, a simple pot of Folgers with some cinnamon added.  That smell… my god, it was amazing.  Cassandra got a cup to go.  I decided to do the same.  Just one cup, I said.  What harm would that do?

It was a short trip from one cup at a bakery to an after dinner espresso to full relapse.  Soon my morning was not complete until I pushed the plunger on a French press.

After a year or so of mild to intense consumption, I quit again.  This time, I said, it would stick.  Green tea.  And a lot of Red Bull.  But then it occurred to me that drinking seven cups of green tea and a Red Bull every day was probably just as bad as three cups of strong coffee. 

Coffee, used here as a blanket term, presents itself in so many forms.  Say I’m tired of the standard drip cup.  Well, there’s espresso and milk and all the combinations.  And there’s a pour over coffee, which I had never heard of, which was enough to get me out of the house.  I had to try it.  And then there are the massive drinks that defy logic, like the Zombie at the Pick Me Up Café, a stunning combination of two cups of coffee and three shots of espresso topped with steamed milk and whipped cream served in an oversized mug.  The name implies a drink strong enough to wake the dead, and indeed it is a helluva dose of thunder.  And there’s the gourmet shops with their espresso shots yielding rich crema that houses all that caffeine, the greasy spoon diners where you might as well drink it black it’s so damn weak, Dunkin Donuts, purveyor of a consistently good cup of Joe and stale pastry, the oft mentioned Starbucks, the McDonald’s of highbrow coffee, and, well, McDonald's who recently decided to enter the classy coffee competition but really ought to stick to their run-of-the-mill cup which was always pretty good.  There’s Intelligentsia, rapidly becoming a chain in this city, servers of damn fine coffee but, sadly, staffed and patronized by hipster douche bags.  The bookshops have closed, the record stores have scaled back, but the cafés are alive and twitching. 

And with so much variety, after giving up so many other things, why not indulge in coffee?  Why not, indeed. Sip... Ah...

To end this, because I honestly have no idea how else to end this, I’d like to share a little ditty that my Grandfather introduced me to, just as he introduced me to coffee.  Enjoy. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

To Be or Not To Be a Man

Conversation between Jeffrey Lebowski and Jeffrey Lebowski:

“What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?…Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn't that what makes a man?

“Hmmm... Sure, that and a pair of testicles.”


Last Sunday, my second favorite TV show, Mad Men, came back on the air.  (Those who know me already know what my number one is.)  Whenever this occurs, the media and the viewers get a little crazy with the Mad Men tie-ins that take the shape of cocktail specials, parody commercials, theme parties, and books.  Yes, there are books and classes devoted to the themes of Mad Men, though the most compelling idea to come from them that I’ve seen (and I’ve not been looking) has to do with the way the show traces the evolution of 50s norms into 60s reality.  The times they did-a change, and the show does a fantastic job of illustrating all of that.

Of course, many watch the show for the clothes and, I imagine, to peak into a world where a guy could still sexually harass a woman with impunity. 

I admit that I watched all of the last two seasons of the show prior to the start of this most recent semester.  I wanted to go into the classroom with a bit of Don Draper’s attitude.  The classroom is mine and I am in charge, or so I chanted.  If a student acts up or fails to hand in assignments on time, I’ll get Draper on their ass.  They will be dealt with just as Draper deals with his underlings, and they will fear and respect me. 

The idea that I model my ideal self as a teacher (or, apparently, disciplinarian) after a fictional character is somewhat outlandish.  Nevertheless, this is how many of us go through our days: reinforcing norms and performing our gender roles.  Don Draper is a masculine symbol, not merely for his incredible looks (those belong to John Hamm, actually) but for his attitude.  When he tells a client off, the client second-guesses himself.  He rules the conference room.  He commands respect.  He takes no shit.


John Hamm, by the way, used to be a teacher.  I wonder how Draper he was?


In this very classroom where I fail to emulate Don Draper, I do discuss an essay by Gary Soto called “To Be a Man”.  The reader makes an assumption about the contents just from reading the title.  One imagines Soto will deconstruct masculine behavior and make a comment about the unfortunate men who adhere to socially mandated expectations.  Surely the conclusion will be that men ought to adopt a more compassionate persona that allows them to be in touch with their feelings, this being as much of an affectation as the hyper-masculine, machismo drooling troglodyte.   

Actually, Soto’s essay deals with his vision of what it means to be a man, or his vision when he was a young boy.  He saw his father barely conscious in his chair in front of the TV after a long day of hard work, a beer at his side and not a word leaving his mouth.  This image of defeat compelled Soto to decide that being a man looked like too much work, so he decided to become a hobo, that being the only other option.   The essay ends with a bit about Soto’s life as an adult: steeped in academia, he watches men at faculty cocktail parties acting distinctly unmanly.  This is the opposite of the blue collar laborer.  The difference being huge to Soto, the other men are oblivious to the dichotomy as they laugh it up at the cheese plate. 

But is there simply this dichotomy, this pair of mutually exclusive possibilities?  Can a man be both the soft, pampered elitist and the hard drinking worker?  Are we doomed to be only mouth-breathing lugs or touchy-feely types?  Must we choose between asshole and Alan Alda? 

I reject all this.  At least I wish I did.

In a perfect world, I would be John Wayne reading poetry, drinking beer and eating brie.


As I was conducting all sorts of business yesterday, I somehow (yeah, right) stumbled onto my Rate Your Professor rating.  A whopping two entries were found, both agreeing that I am “chill,” whatever the fuck that means.  Cassandra interprets this to mean that I do not come off as an uptight, inflexible authoritarian there to torture the luckless students.  Rather, I am laid back and, thus, approachable, able to get my students to relax and pay attention, contribute, engage.  I hope this is true, but my reading of these seemingly positive evaluations is that I take it too easy on these students and ought to assign a lot more work.  Fuck chill: I ought to be Don Draper.  Draper is cool, but not chill. 


Cassandra has said more than once that she is glad I do not care about sports.  There’s no way she could endure the sports lover’s bullshit refrain: “I just want to see what the score is.” 

My lack of sports love marks me, in someone’s eyes I’m sure, as less than manly.  Men like sports.  Men also eat meat, preferably steak.  Men drink beer.  Well, one out of three ain’t bad.

(By the way: that Cassandra, the finest of all women, has opted to share her life with me is evidence that one need not be a sports lover to be a happy man.  Still, I experience the inverse of the male-female sports plight when it’s World Cup time.)


Of course, not all men eat steak, drink beer, and love sports.  Some of us eat tofu, drink whiskey, and love books.  And some of us act less like men and more like boys.  And some like sex with men and not with women.  Some think John Wayne was a lousy actor and terrible archetype (not me, of course).  Some get no excitement whatsoever from fast cars.  Some of us can barely change a light bulb much less the oil in our cars.  Some of us sit up worrying not about our careers but about the nightmare of being alone in an unforgiving universe.  Some of us would sooner eat glass than have children. 

Some of us, if we were crazy enough to have kids, would be fucked if they were male children, as we wouldn’t want to throw a football around with them.  We would certainly experience some odd cosmic humor in the form of a little boy who loved NASCAR, baseball, and the rodeo.  We'd dread little league games.  We’d have so little to say to that child, so little in common.  We’d cook them their tofu based dishes and read them some Yeats poems only to get laughed at, derided, wounded.  We’d anxiously wait for the day when that male child grew into a male adult, age eighteen we’d hope, and left the house for good.  We’d endure some awkward Thanksgivings and painful Christmases and find excuses not to converse.  We’d grow old and see our lives mocked in the form of our child.  We’d convince ourselves that we did a good job, the best we could, and maybe make jokes about the lack of interest our child took in our interests, children being their own little autonomous beings after all—you can’t make them love what you love, you just have to love them, even if you don’t like them and they don’t like you.  We’d tell ourselves all of this but we’d of course feel like failures. 

We’d look in the mirror one day and see the giant pussy looking back.  


Speaking of pussy: while walking my dog, a Chihuahua, down the cruel streets of Rogers Park, I got fucked with by some real men.  They were in a large vehicle, a truck of some sort, the kind of thing men drive.  As they drove past me, one yelled: "SHOW US YOUR PUSSY, SIR!"  

My dog, while big for his breed, is still a little guy.  Perhaps I look unmanly escorting him while he sniffs the ground and lifts a leg.  Even more so while he is clad in a sweater.  But I don't give a fuck.  I love that dog.  He's the closest I'll ever come to having a child.  He is my child, goddamnit.  And what the fuck do I care if some assholes in a gas guzzler feel the need to reaffirm their wayward definition of masculinity at my expense?  I should feel only pity for these pricks. 

So while I don't care if nurturing a small makes me seem, to some, unmasculine, I nevertheless retorted in a regrettable fashion; as the car drove away, I yelled: "What would you do with my pussy, faggot?"

Masculine habits are hard to break. 


I was fortunate (?) enough to attend a high school where there were no girls in sight.  Catholic school, they called it.  Apparently Catholics, like some Muslims, think females are too distracting for us boys.  Thus, the women were sheltered from us and taken across the street to the girl’s version of our Purgatory.  We matriculated without any real women around, just the ones in our heads. 

But once a year the school would gather us into the gym for a pep rally.  It was during this time that our raging hormones and stupid aggression would find release.  We screamed for our football team.  Me too.  My lack of interest in school sports didn’t matter—I was being given an outlet for all the frustration that besets the average teen.  I was chubby, not terribly bright, goofy looking, unpopular, angry, awkward, clumsy, and not very masculine.  But I could scream and stomp and act every bit the macho asshole without fear of reprisal. It was great.

In our collective action, we dumb boys felt like men, never more than during senior year, the year that ruined pep rallies for the rest of the school, or so I have been told.  You see, during that last pep rally we took shit too far.  Part of it was the fault of some of my classmates, especially the one who threw firecrackers under the bleachers, but a lot of the fault rests on the shoulders of the faculty and staff who gathered us together, encouraged us to behave like savages, and then, stupidly, ushered in some of those girls from across the street.  And they dressed them up like cheerleaders, a sight I had not seen save for a few bad teen movies.  In these bad teen movies, the cheerleaders were almost always sluts.  By the twisted groupthink of a young male psyche, these cheerleaders must also have been sluts, which is what we called sexually adventurous girls we pretended to know.  Regardless, the sight of these girls, sluts or otherwise, was enough to amp up the aggression.  And then the lights went out.

If memory serves, they wanted to show us a film and killed the lights just as the projector failed.  The result: two minutes of darkness.  In this short time I was knocked from my seat, my tie was removed, someone elbowed me, a weak but effective punch was landed, I got kicked and shoved.  When the lights came up, I was at two rows below where I had been sitting, mildly wounded and really fucking excited.  

This is perhaps the ultimate moment of my life’s masculinity, in the unrefined troglodyte sense.  Stupid, violent, pointless, exhilarating.  That’s what being a guy is all about!


Cassandra tells me that I cannot effectively explore the masculine identity without discussing my relationship with the men of my childhood, the role models, the ones who shaped me.  I answer: I cannot effectively explore masculinity, period. 


I’ve heard Thanksgiving called “man’s day” as it essentially involves men watching football and drinking beer during the many hours it takes the women to cook a large meal.  And this is one of the most popular holidays in America, rivaling Christmas.  What does this tell you? 


Recently I watched a silly, fluffy little documentary on this subject called Mansome, directed by the annoying little prick, Morgan Spurlock.  It attempts to deconstruct masculinity but falls really fucking short.  This is in keeping with all of Spurlock’s work.  He doesn’t bite off more than he can chew; he just bites and spits it out. 

One thing in Mansome that did strike me as interesting: there is a whole competitive circuit dedicated to facial hair growing.  An active competitor named Jack Passion, a dude with a Rip Van Winkle beard who has won some awards and carved out a bit of relative fame, stated (and I’m paraphrasing) that his beard is a symbol of his man’s hair while the hair on his head, cut very short, represents his boyhood look.  This struck me as worth considering.  The two sides of his male life— as a boy and as a man—find representation on his head, detailing the journey from youth to adulthood. 

While it is handy to look at a long beard and view it the way one would the rings of a cut tree, it certainly does nothing to demonstrate the maturation one hopes a dude Passion’s age would have.  And this is not to say that Jack Passion is a big child—I don’t know the guy, though he is pretty douchy in the film.  Still, if only there were a way to actually see the emotional growth. 


I've been lax on shaving these days, though I can't get a beard anywhere near normal length, not to mention the absurd length of Passion's.  I shave less because I am lazy and because Cassandra seems to like it.  But I am lazy.  And this is not manly.  Men do things.  They work with their hands.  They have ongoing projects, usually physical ones.  And they shave.

Shaving is a masculine ritual.  When I first started shaving I went electric.  That proved ineffective and so I switched to the razor and foam.  At the time, I asked a lot of men about their preferred method.  The answers revealed two aspects of stupid masculinity.  Those who preferred the electric razor did so because they like toys.  Men tend to dig gadgets, however impractical.  Others, the ones who still used the lather and razor, said they liked the tradition of the old style shave.  Some even went so far as to use a straight razor. Men keep traditions alive, however antiquated. 

We're so dumb.