Posts Tagged ‘humor’

Most of my friends claim to have had a harrowing time at high school. They complain about being picked on by teachers, bullied by older students, hopeless at sports, and stressed by a combination of part-time jobs and homework. They paint such a Dickensian scene of horror that I feel ashamed to admit that my main complaints about high school was that it went on too long and taught me lazy habits.

The truth is, I never had any serious problems at school. I may have been good at academics (in fact, I won one of the two major scholarships the year I graduated), but I was also a minor sports star, scoring regularly in rugby, and winning races and setting records on the track and in cross-country races. If I became increasingly solitary as high school dragged on, it was because of my growing realization that I had little in common with those around me. Nobody was going to bother me, because until I stopped growing at fourteen, I was big for my age, and afterward I carried myself like a big man, and looked fit enough to cause anyone who went after me some grief.

The result of all this was that I was left to do more or less as I pleased. Teachers trusted me, and my running especially gave me respect, and most people left me alone. The only exceptions were the boys who responded sarcastically to everyone, and I had no trouble answering them in kind.

The only trouble was, I was ready to leave about Grade 10. I realized that to do any of the things I wanted to do, I would need to graduate, but all I could really do was endure and try to appreciate the fact that these would be last years free of serious responsibilities. So I kept to my routine of study and training for running, mooned about over one girl after another, and waited for it all to be over. I was bored, and I knew it.

In fact, my boredom was responsible for one of the few times a teacher kept me after class. Warming up for typing class, I had written “B—–O—–R—–E—–D!!!!!” repeatedly across my page, and, the next class, the teacher decided to admonish me. “You’re bored before the class even starts,” she said, in an accusing tone, as though I had been caught stealing the principal’s day book. After enduring a rambling lecture about how I had the wrong attitude, I muttered something about it being a joke and slunk away as soon as I could.

By Grade 12, I would take any excuse possible for getting away from school early. I would use my free period to go for a run, especially if it fell just before lunch or the last period of the day. I didn’t bother to attend graduation – officially because the girl with whom I was currently infatuated had moved back to her small town and I wasn’t interested in anyone else, but truthfully because I didn’t care.

For the last six weeks of the year, I even had permission to skip most of my classes to study for the government scholarships. The suggestion was taken by the councilors as an important step in my maturity, although they insisted that I keep attending French class, where my struggle with boredom was causing my grades to slip. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get out of classes altogether, but decided to be satisfied with what I could get. By the day of the graduation ceremony, I was already mentally far removed, and thinking of my planned trip to visit my far-away infatuation (which, needless to say, ended badly)

So, no, I can’t say I suffered much in high school, inflicting boredom not usually being regarded as cruel. But, years later, I realized that, in another respect, high school had failed me badly.

In those days, no students skipped grades. It was thought better to keep students with their peer groups. And if that meant that I mooched around a year of Community Recreation as the class loner because I had nothing in common with the rest of the class, that was supposed to somehow help me socialize into a normal North American man – something I was already resolved not to become.

Nor were there any enrichment classes to speak of. The closest equivalent was the Humanities program I took for two years, which was delightfully free-form, but meant that I had to fill many of the gaps in my education – Macbeth, for instance– for myself.

But the point was, there was nothing to challenge me, a fact that I always thought said more about the curriculum than about any brilliance in me. For two years, I drifted along bored, not trying nearly as hard as I could have. In the end, I developed a lack of self-discipline in everything except running, and had to scramble during my first semester at university to learn some proper study habits. Far from preparing me for anything, what high school really did was encourage me to take everything far too easy..

Still, after all these years, in all honesty, I can’t blame anyone else for my own shortcomings, not even a conveniently vague system or spirit of the times. So when someone else starts bemoaning the terrors of their high school years, I listen attentively and make suitable noises at suitable intervals until an opportunity to change the subject arises. My fear is that someone will learn that I lack the requisite background of torment, and consequently don’t qualify as any sort of geek at all.

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I never have learned how to accept compliments gracefully. With insults, I know where I”m at; self-defense kicks in and I turn icily cold and dryly cutting. But one enthusiastic word, even from a lover, and a blush warms my cheeks and I start to stammer.

Part of my difficulty is that compliments are rarely delivered at the time of whatever they are praising. Meanwhile, I’ve moved on to some other project. I’m no longer engaged by whatever is being complimented, so much so that it could almost have been done by someone else.

That is especially true when someone compliments a piece of my writing. The facts that I crammed into my short-term memory and the arguments to structure them are no longer there, having been nudged aside by the facts and arguments for the next piece that I’m doing. I imagine that writers on tour to promote a book they finished a year ago must feel the same way.

Another part of my difficulty is that I am convinced that compliments are not healthy for me. I know that those delivering the compliment are being enthusiastic or polite, but part of me regards their kind words as the equivalent of a plate of cinnamon buns that’s being pushed under my nose – however enticing, the compliments seem unhealthy, like far too much of a good thing.

But the main reason I squirm is because of a bit of my own hypocrisy. From all my childhood heroes from King Arthur to Robin Hood, I’ve learned that modesty about my own accomplishments is a virtue (an attitude that makes my years as a marketing consultant more than a little inexplicable).

Yet, at the same time, I can’t help hoping that someone is noticing those accomplishments. Receiving a compliment forces me to confront this contradiction – and, since I am even poorer at lying to myself than I am at receiving a compliment, the whole experience leaves me in confusion.

While part of me thinks that I shouldn’t enjoy the compliment, another part of me is secretly wallowing in delight. Since the two impulses are completely irreconcilable, what I really want to do is make my escape as quickly as possible.

Tell me that learning to accept compliments is part of being an adult, and I would agree with you. But in practice, I’ve never achieved complacency. The best I can manage is a “Thank you” that would rival the Duke of Wellington for curtness, followed by a quick change of subject.

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I sometimes think that the hardest part of being a widower is not learning to live alone, but going to a party. To my relief, nobody has tried to fix me up with anyone (although I fear it’s only a matter of time), but everybody does something far worse: they try to send me home with food.

Apparently, it’s a heartfelt conviction that, because I live alone, I must be either starving or else eating at restaurants seven nights a week. Or perhaps people imagine that I’m like one acquaintance whose idea of meal preparation was to cook seven pounds of hamburger on Sunday night then wrap it up in seven pieces. The idea that I might actually enjoy cooking, or find it an important part of my routine never occurs to them.

The truth of the matter is very different. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I made a point of stocking my kitchen with basic supplies and taking a cook book, in the firm belief that normal adults, male or female, should know how to feed themselves. This outlook baffled the room mate I had briefly, whose idea of food was whatever he could find to eat when he was hungry.

In fact, one reason we parted ways was that I thought he should reciprocate and do some cooking occasionally. But his idea of cooking was to fry an egg, and, after he burned through an over mitt by leaning on a stove burner while he was talking, I thought it wiser not to insist.

When I married, I continued to cook twenty-nine days of the month out of thirty. Often, I was working from home, so I was the logical cook if we were going to eat before midnight. I didn’t mind; it was better than washing dishes, and freed me (I used to claim) to dirty as many pots and pans as I wanted, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to scrub them.

Besides, preparing a meal helped to divide my work and personal time – a line that easily blurs when you work at home. Instead of a commute, I drag myself away from the computer and spend half an hour in the kitchen, clearing my mind by focusing on the simple tasks of cutting up vegetables and mixing sauces.

As a result, while nobody would call me a gourmet, I like to think that I know my way around a kitchen. My freezer is packed with meats and berries, the refrigerator with vegetables and fruit. I have firm ideas on which spices or cheeses I should use in a given circumstance. I have two dozen standard dishes, ranging from sweet potato pie or risotto to lasagna or meatloaf for days when I’m not feeling imaginative, several dozen side dishes such as potat bravas, corn fritters, or spanakopita I can mix and match for variation, and a dozen carefully selected cook books I can use as the starting point for improvisation when I experiment. Unless I’m meeting a friend, I only eat out or order take in a couple of times a month, usually when my work has run late or on the Friday after an exhausting week.

In short, I am a better than average cook. Moreover, many of my friends should know that, because I’ve fed them. Yet, at the end of a party, surveying the leftovers and wondering what to do with them, everyone seems to forget that fact. Perhaps they even see a chance to do a kindness. All the same, I’m irked to be an object of pity, and annoyed that my hard-won competence in the kitchen is overlooked.

But of course I say none of this. Instead, I express my thanks, declining the offer with the (usually) true excuse that my freezer and fridge are full. Then, just before I leave, I check my pack for any stray tupperware containers that might have been slipped into it when I wasn’t looking.

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Like those infinite monkeys who eventually replicate Shakespeare on their keyboards, so I become fashionable at random intervals in my life. This time, it’s with hoods, and, I presume, connected to the popularity of hip hop and hoodies, as well the fact that we’re currently slogging through a wet winter in Vancouver. But I find the situation alarming, just the same.

My own reasons for liking hoods are much more personal than fashion. To start with, hoods are often connected to cloaks — and, as I discovered when I was a medievalist, the only thing that’s more romantic or mysteriously dramatic than a cloak is a cloak with a hood.

Think Robin Hood going to the archery contest in disguise. Think Aragorn sitting in the dark corner of the tavern at Bree. Anyone can wear a hat, but only hawks and super heroes or mysterious strangers go hooded. Show me a person who doesn’t feel like a figure of mystery when they’re in a hood and peering out of its dark recesses, and I’ll show you a person whose imagination is either dead or mortally wounded. It’s like carrying your own piece of the night everywhere you go.

Just as importantly, a hood is more practical than any alternative. Unlike most of my fellow Vancouverites, I don’t deny that rain happens frequently around here. It happens a lot, and in winter we sometimes get wind storms full of damp air. But an umbrella or a hat is just one more thing to pack. As I rush for the bus, I’m likely to forget either. If I do remember an umbrella or hat, I either clutch it compulsively when I’m inside, or else put it down and forget it until I’m halfway home.

By contrast, a hood is connected to a coat. That means I’m less likely to forget it. And it definitely won’t fall under a chair and be lost.

However, the real reason I prefer a hood is my lifelong fear of baldness. I was six when I first worried about inheriting my father’s pattern of baldness. Probably, I won’t, because my hairline is inherited from my maternal grandfather, who had a full head of hair when he was eighty. But in my adolescence and young adulthood, I thought my father’s baldness had something to do with his wearing of a tight cap in the British army during World War II.

That was never going to happen to me, I resolved. Besides, wearing hats in public was something my father’s generation did, not mine. So I got into the habit of never wearing one, even to ward off sun stroke. No skull-fitting cap was going to erode my hair prematurely, thanks all the same.

By the time I figured that the issue was one of genetics, the habit had already been formed. Now, I can’t wear a hat or cap without feeling stupid and self-conscious. I don’t even need to reverse a cap to feel this way. Long ago, the feeling became automatic.

Finding myself unintentionally fashionable, I’m almost tempted to break my lifelong habits and start wearing a hat, or at least a toque until the weather improves. But I’m afraid it’s far too late to have a choice. All I can do is pull my hood down over my temples and glare from the depths of its folds at all the latecomers who are intruding on my scene for no better reason than fashion.

With luck, they’ll be so unsettled by the way my eyes glare out like coals at them that they will take their lack of originality and slink away, leaving me alone with my lonely but lordly splendor.

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When I was younger, I loved dark chocolate or good quality milk chocolate. Add almonds to either, and, if I wasn’t bodily lifted into heaven, I’d feel that I was about to be. But eight years ago, I gave up chocolate for the same reason that I gave up coffee: the caffeine was too much for me; forty grams, and I’d have a buzz for the next day. It’s been a learning experience, to say the least.

To start with, not eating chocolate is only marginally more acceptable than smoking. Basically, North America is organized for chocolate lovers.

If you don’t believe me, go into a corner store and try to find a snack that doesn’t include chocolate. With luck, you’ll find gum, a few hard candies, and nuts or sunflower seeds so heavily salted that most people should avoid them. The best recourse is usually to find a deli or a bakery, neither of which is especially common.

Go out to dinner, and you have the same problem. If a restaurant has six dessert items, four or five usually have chocolate. Often, the desserts not only have chocolate, but several other sweet, sticky ingredients like raspberry syrup, and could strike you with Type 2 Diabetes if you weren’t careful to gaze at them only in a mirror.

When you eat in somebody’s home, it’s even worse. No matter how often you explain that you don’t eat chocolate or why, friends and family never remember. After the main course, they usher in some masterpiece in chocolate that they’ve slaved over more than the rest of the dinner put together, and you have to tell them that, regrettably, you can’t have any if you plan on sleeping that night.

I’m not sure which is worst: the look of betrayal, or the pitying gaze that follows it, as though to not eat chocolate is to be excommunicate from the communion of desserts. At times, I’m driven to lie and simply say that I’m full, rather than endure that pity or the explanation for my abstention.

There’s no way, either, to tell all those who pity you that you don’t really miss the chocolate. Their tastes are so conditioned that they don’t understand that there are flavors beyond the simple combination of sugar, fats, and caffeine.

Probably, few people would believe you if you tried to persuade them. Honey? Cinnamon? Nutmeg? We are now well into the third or fourth generation of North Americans for whom savories, let alone other forms of sweetness, are not just unknown, but distasteful.

But honestly? Giving up chocolate has helped me to discover so many different flavors that, far from pining for it like an addict, I don’t miss it at all. These days when I’m offered chocolate, my reaction resembles that of Peter Wimsey when offered Turkish delight – I refuse with a delicate shudder, thinking a taste for chocolate childish and unrefined.

And for that heresy I am cast into the social darkness, forced to walk the purgatory of those who avoid the normal social vices and generally unable to snack when away from home.

Like I said, though, I don’t really mind.

The food is really much better where I am. You see, the taste’s not blotted out by chocolate.

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Now that it’s all over except for the night-sweats, the story can be told.

Last year at the Circle Craft Christmas Market, I entered a raffle for several glass sculptures. When I got home, a message awaited me that I had won one of the sculptures.

For reasons that will soon become obvious, I don’t remember what the sculpture was that I allegedly won. But I was intrigued; although I own dozens of original pieces of Northwest Coast art, I only have one or two other original pieces. I immediately phoned Andrew Luketic, the president of the British Columbia Glass Arts Association, and was told to contact him in a few days later, when the business arising from participation in the Christmas Market had wound down.

When I phoned, he had some good news and some bad news. The good news (or so I thought at the time) was that I had indeed won. The bad news was that my prize had been broken during the cleanup for the Christmas Market.

Luketic assured me that I would receive another prize instead. Everything would be arranged in another couple of weeks, he assured me.

However, another couple of weeks passed with no results. Then another. Then Christmas intervened. Each time I contacted Luketic, he promised to resolve the matter. Each time, the schedule he had suggested wasn’t met. I started to get a little impatient, going around muttering that only I could win a prize that I never managed to receive.

At the start of 2011, Luketic seemed to disappear. After five or six weeks of hearing nothing, a few flecks of foam started to appear around my lips when I thought of the situation.

I contemplated a blog campaign, perhaps a conversation with a mainstream journalist or two in need of local color. However, deciding that such methods of persuasion were premature, I contacted the Circle Craft Christmas Market organizers instead and explained my plight.

Shortly after, Luketic contacted me for the first time in two months. His internet connection had gone down, he told me, and other problems had invaded his personal life. We had never been in contact via the Internet, but I choked back my sarcastic remarks in the hopes of resolving the situation.

Another holding pattern set in, and for the next four months, I waited, contacted the Christmas Market organizers, and received a promise of action, only for the cycle to repeat itself.

More than once, I thought of dropping the matter. After all, I had done nothing to deserve the prize beyond filling out a raffle ticket. But you don’t raise a kid on the story of Robert the Bruce and the  spider without making him a trifle tenacious, and I persisted.

Early in June, Luketic organized a series of possible alternatives, saying that, after the long wait, that was the least he could do. With photos of my options in my Inbox, our interaction mellowed somewhat, and we actually had a friendly talk about the glass work of First Nation artists Preston Singletary and Joe David – a talk that, a few months earlier, I couldn’t have imagined.

A few weeks later and another prod or two from the Christmas Market organizers, and by mid-July, Luketic met me to give me my choice of an alternative prize. He also promised to send me some information about the artist, including her name.

However, despite more prodding, he never did. So, when I left ApacheCon North America earlier today and dropped by this year’s Christmas Market, I decided I would drop by the BC Glass Arts Association’s display and get the artist’s name.

To his credit, Luketic didn’t flee or throw something when I appeared (although I noticed that, this year, the display didn’t include a raffle). He wrote the artist’s name on a business card, and now, a few days short of a year after I won the prize, I am able to say that I am now the satisfied owner of Laura Murdock’s “Alice’s Teacup,” a bowl about a twenty-five centimeters in diameter and twelve high, and have been enjoying for several months how the gild in the glass catches the morning sunlight in the living room.

In the end, I suspect the alternative was better for me than the original. The original, Luketic reminded me, was tall and not very solidly based, which was why it broke in the first place. Considering that I live with three flighted and inquisitive parrots, a low, stable piece like “Alice’s Teacup” is undoubtedly safer in the living room.

So, finally, everything is resolved. I’ll probably even check out the Glass Art Association’s exhibits in the coming year.

Just don’t talk to me about raffles – at least, not until I finish therapy.

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For the last two years, Kate Beaton’s web comic “Hark! A Vagrant” has been part of my morning reading before I settle down to work. Not only is the comic centered on literature and history, which happens to be my favorite reading material, but Beaton approaches both from a distinctly Canadian viewpoint as I do, as opposed to the usual American or English one. So naturally when her first collection came out, I pre-ordered it.

Naturally, too, my productivity went out with the garbage the morning it arrived, as I eagerly read cover to cover.

So far as I can figure, the collection includes all of the comics posted on the web from March 2009 to June or July 2011. They are all available online, of course, but I believe in supporting artists whose work I admire. Besides, the reproduction on the page is far better than on the screen. And, unless I’m mistaken, Beaton has taken the opportunity to clean up the comics and rearrange them by subject matter – although even online, she tends to publish small bursts of comics on the same subject at one time.

Another advantage of the book is that it allows me to appreciate Beaton’s work more. In particular, until reading the book, I don’t think I fully appreciated how much her loosely rendered style owes to Edward Gorey. It’s by no means a slavish copy of Gorey’s work, being less angular and less-detailed in the background, but the resemblance is obvious when you look at their work side by side. Beaton indirectly acknowledges the influence by devoting a number of comics to the impression that Gorey’s dust jackets give of the contents of the book they adorn; clearly, she knows his work well.

Reading Beaton’s comics in batches also helps me to pinpoint her sense of humor. It’s broader than Gorey’s, and less straight-faced, at turns sarcastic (Jane Eyre telling Mr. Rochester at the end of the story that “We are equals now that I am totally superior to you! Now I can love you”) and willfully literal minded (Nancy Drew telling men seen through a crack in a wall that she will rescue them, and their reply, “we could just walk around”), and more likely to be carried by the words than the drawing.

At times, the humor drifts in to the absurd, as with Queen Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech, in which her words “I have the heart and stomach of a king” is continued with “and the wingspan of an albatross” and “the left hook of a heavyweight champ.” Often, the humor comes from a juxtaposition of modern and historical outlooks, such as Americans telling the French during The Reign of Terror that “We think your revolution is super creepy” or the Brides of Dracula terrifying Jonathan Harker, not with their sexuality but their desire to vote and own property, and go to university.

There’s no denying that “Hark! A Vagrant” is a geeky comic. It isn’t buttressed with the elaborate footnotes of Sydney Padua’s “2D Goggles,” but, without a knowledge of the historical events or the fiction she is riffing off, the jokes are much less funny, if they work at all. In particular, I can’t help wondering how much non-Canadians can grasp of jokes about people like Lester Pearson, William Lyon Mackenzie, or John Diefenbaker. Beaton’s assumption that the readers have prior knowledge might very well limit her audience, but for those of us who know what she is talking about (I get about 90%), her work is an acquired taste that leaves us hungry for more.

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“I’m going back on the bicycle,
I just can’t pay the bills,
I’m going back on the bicycle,
And freewheel down the hill.”

–Tommy Sands

In my teens, I was welded to my bicycle. I used it to run errands in the village, and in the summer I would organize forty kilometer rides out to Horseshoe Bay or the University of British Columbia. But as an adult, I let my bicycle rust on the porch until it was beyond reclaiming, and walked or rode in a car – until today, when I spent the afternoon becoming a cyclist again.

I’d been contemplating the move for some time. For one thing, I only preserve my sanity when riding an exercise bike at the gym by doing interval workouts – and even then I have to grit my teeth against the sports and diet talk around me. For another, Burnaby, the city where I live, has kilometers of urban cycle trails, including the Central Valley Greenway, which goes all the way into Vancouver, as well as dozens of trails through the nearby green belt. Just as importantly, now that I’m by myself, I felt the need of doing something new, something just for me.

Still, for a while I thought I wasn’t fated to be a cyclist again. Twice when I planned to find a bike, the Skytrain broke down. Two other times, I had a swollen ankle that kept me near home. Another time, a friend arrived unexpectedly in town, causing me to cancel my plans. But today, the stars were finally aligned, and shortly after noon, I arrived at the shop and started trying bikes.

Supposedly, you never forget how to ride. But in my case, that’s a half truth: in my first effort, I managed to stay upright, but I wobbled like the backside of a duck.

Fortunately, my inner ear and muscles soon started half-remembering the skills I hadn’t used in years, and within twenty minutes I was no longer disgracing myself quite so badly and could almost look over my shoulder without veering out of control. If I couldn’t turn on a dime, I could just about manage the maneuver on a baseball diamond.

I did, though, need to go back and try the first bike again. The first time I tried it, I was too busy clinging to the handle bars and trying not to yelp with terror when the bike store employee gave me a push.

I had come with a definite idea of what I wanted – a refurbished bike, with racing handle bars, and a good gear ratio so I wouldn’t bang my chin with my knees when pedaling on the flat. But a slightly used hybrid (half mountain, half road) was almost the same price, gave a better ride with regular handle bars, and gave me more options for the kinds of riding I was likely to do. So that’s what I ended up buying, even though twenty-one gears seems a ridiculously large number.

Then it was time to accessorize. When I was a teenager, I just hopped on my bike and rode. In contrast, today the law requires a helmet and a bell at the very least (never mind that I would forget all about the bell and most likely shout on any occasion when it might be useful). If I ride at night, I need a rear reflector. A basket and lock were necessary for quick hops to the store. I also wanted fenders, since the idea of my back being spotted by mud didn’t appeal – and, living in the Lower Mainland, sooner or later, I knew I would be riding in the rain. Still, somehow I fought the madness and managed to keep my spending down to only ten dollars more than I had planned.

“How are you going to get home?” the store clerk asked.

I had planned to take my new purchase on the Skytrain and only ride a couple of kilometers home, but in a fit of bravado I said, “I’m going to ride it.”

“Good for you! Way to go!” The clerk enthused. But when he asked me where I lived, I couldn’t help imagining that he looked glad to think that he was unlikely to be on the road while I was. He’d seen me testing bikes.

Since home was ten kilometers away, I was already repenting my rashness. Yet I couldn’t back down without condemning myself as an empty boaster, even if nobody except me would know. So I set off, my hands a little uncertain on the gears, worrying that any moment I was going to end up curled in a ball, like the centipede who become uncoordinated when asked how he walked. So long as I didn’t think too much, I kept telling myself, I could trust my old reflexes to get me home – even if I took three hours to get there, and walked most of the way.

But you know what? Within a kilometer of leaving the store, I was having the most fun I had had in over a year. Like walking, cycling keeps me in touch with what’s happening around me, but it has the advantage of letting you travel reasonably quickly.

Moreover, unlike a car, a bicycle is a machine that enhances your muscular effort. Where a car simply carries you, a bike improves your efficiency, helping you to climb a hill more easily in lower gears, and to travel farther with each revolution of the pedal in higher gears.

The result was a wild joy in my heart, of a sort that only the best of runs can provide. I felt strong and unlimited, as though I wanted to sing but too many songs were clamoring to be sung for me to know which to voice first.

Thirty minutes later, I was regretting the end of the trip, and only the knowledge that I had to get other things done kept me from prolonging it.

I’m sure that my muscles will pay the price tomorrow. But I’m going out for a ride tomorrow, too, hoping to recapture more of that strenuous pleasure from my teen years that I’d forgotten.

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Considering how much I dislike authority figures, I have had surprisingly little trouble with them in my working life. Maybe the fact that I am habitually polite in person helps – although it can also give rise to charges of hypocrisy if I criticize someone later in an article. Maybe, too, the fact my acts of subversion are usually covert has something to do with it, too. But whatever the reason, I only remember a single reprimand – and then it was without any intent on my part.

The incident happened when I was working for a small company that was being slowly ground under by its CEO. He was new and. while he was learning as he went along, he lacked the empathy to understand that repeated purges of the staff might have an effect on morale. I mention this background because worry among the top management might have been responsible for my reprimand.

At the time, I had the habit of entering small jokes into the screensaver banner – wry, mildly amusing one-liners of the sort you often see today on Facebook and Twitter. Most were so trivial that I no longer remember them. One might have been “Common sense isn’t,” and another (borrowed from Doonesbury), “It’s tough being pure. Especially in your underwear.” If I didn’t use either of these, the ones I did use were similarly innocuous.

So, too, I thought was the one that caused me trouble. It was a T-shirt slogan that I had first heard about at a Garnet Rogers concert: “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?”

I changed the banner after a morning of editing a manual for publication when I reflected that I was lingering over changes that probably no one except me would ever notice or care about. To me, the expression was a comment about how overly-punctilious I was being and how close I was to losing my sense of proportion. I posted it, and went for lunch.

When I got back, the fourth highest executive in the company accosted me with a look so grim that I thought another company purge had come. Instead, with lips quivering with disapproval, he insisted that I take down the banner.

“Why?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

The lip quivering increased. “I shouldn’t have to tell you. Some things are simply unacceptable in the work place.”

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that comment,” I said, secure in the knowledge that I had a consulting contract with a kill-clause. “What’s the problem?”

But finally, after the executive made a few vague efforts to talk around the issue without being specific, I relented. All I really understood was that he thought I had overstepped and that, more in sorrow than in anger, he had to correct my behavior.

“No big deal, if that makes you happy,” I said. “But you’re making a fuss over nothing.”

To this day, I am still not sure what he thought I was saying. I doubt that he was suggesting that I was making a comment on micro-management, because, if anything, the company management style was too remote.

The most likely possibility, since he was a fundamentalist Christian who had read little outside the Bible, was that he was unfamiliar with the term “anal-retentive” and jumped to the conclusion that the expression was obscene. Maybe he just felt that a phrase whose meaning he didn’t know should be deleted on principle.

But, whatever the reason, I not only felt that the matter was hardly worth bringing up, but that he had over-reacted. I had no point to make, and would have removed the comment at a simple request.

For a month after the incident, I had little to do with the executive. Technically, I was reporting to him, so matters might have been strained, but since his supervision consisted of approving the task list that I wrote for myself and collecting my time sheet so he could initial it before sending it off to payroll, the main difference was that we talked less.

Finally, he decided he had to discuss the matter with me. He claimed that he was the main reason I was hired as a consultant, and insisted that he had done the right thing, and expected me to agree.

However, I was in no mood to give him much satisfaction. “You over-stepped your authority,” I said, “But that’s in the past, so I’m willing to forget what happened.”

That wasn’t good enough for the executive. He tried to get me to apologize, but I simply continued to insist that we move on until he gave up.

We never did return to the relatively friendly relationship we had before. But, a few weeks later, I put in my notice, and the issue ceased to matter. Since then, I’ve thought more than once that the real sign of how anal-retentive I can be is that I’ve wondered occasionally since exactly what he thought was happening.

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Once every decade or two, something I am into becomes popular. The situation is rare enough that I am still recovering from my chagrin when the local TV news used The Pogues’ “Fairy Tale of New York” as background music to an account of a dinner for the homeless a decade ago and from everyone knowing the plot of The Lord of the Rings when the movies were released. But by far my most frequent moments of unintentional trendiness and the resulting breakup of my routine revolve around exercise.

Since I’m built like a cement mixer, you might not realize by looking at me, but I have been a regular exerciser all my teen and adult years. Any day in which I don’t burn a minimum of seven hundred calories running, swimming, or cycling, I count as a slack day. I’m the sort you see doggedly jogging in a snow storm, or being unfashionably sweaty at one end of the gym. I consider exercise a necessary balance to all my hours at the keyboard, and a form of meditation besides. Unlike many people, I like exercise, and the heavier the better.

The trouble is, people are always discovering exercise. That means that the shoes I need periodically sprout velcro buckles and thick tread more suitable for a tank, or blossom in outlandish colors – anything so that their prices can double. Functional sweat tops disappear, replaced by tailored suits made of synthetic fibers that cause me to break out in a rash, and the gyms are always crowded in the first few weeks of January until the newcomers find the courage to break their New Year’s resolutions (much to everybody’s relief).

All this is superfluously annoying when all I want is ankle and arch support in my shoes, natural fabric, logo-free gear and a quiet place to sweat. But, this time, the fashionistas have gone too far. Noticing the popularity of basketball among males under twenty five, the sports stores have decided that all they need to carry for any sort of exercise is basketball shorts – baggy shorts that fall to the knees, and that generally amount to free advertising for an American team.

The least of my problems with the stores only selling basketball shorts is that I look ridiculous in them. Most of my height is in my torso, and I’m considerably below two meters tall. Wearing basketball shorts, I only look like a kid who’s growing too quickly for the length of his trousers. That’s how I feel, too.

But what I really object to is that basketball shorts are completely unsuited to strenuous exercise (and, for all I know, that includes basketball). They might be barely tolerable for the genteel weight-lifting that most of the men at the gym do, in which ten reps are followed by twenty minutes of conversation. But on the pavement or on the saddle of a bike, nothing is more unsuitable.

When I’m working up a sweat, I want my legs as unencumbered as possible. I don’t want them tangling in folds of loose fabric that bind them and prevent them moving freely. That is almost as bad as wearing sweat pants while doing strenuous exercise.

Yet because of the whims of fashion, a day is fast approaching when I won’t have the simple clothes I need to continue doing what I’ve done for decades. Within a few months, unless I abandon exercising altogether, I’ll be forced to choose between three unsatisfactory alternatives: wearing what’s easily available and feeling confined and uncomfortable; shortening a pair of shorts with one of my unsatisfactory hemming jobs (assuming that the synthetic fabric allows me to do that), or else ordering pairs of rugby shorts online and enduring the chafing of the thick material.

Probably, I’ll end up ordering the rugby shorts. But I resent having to make the extra effort simply because trendiness has touched down like a tornado in an area that I happen to frequent. My best hope is that it will move on before my present crop of shorts falls apart, and I can go back to being unfashionable for another ten years.

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