Not a Blue Christmas: A Zoom Reading

Hi friends. A quick plug here for an event I’m participating in this Sunday at 2:30 pm ET. It’s Not A Blue Christmas, a series of readings via Zoom, organized by Shoreline Press. I’ll be reading a selection of short pieces of humour that, as it turns out, highlight all the things we won’t be able to do this season. Who knew we’d miss wet socks at Christmas parties? Email me for details and the link:

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Worst of the Best of 2020 Lists

Best Albums 2020
End-of-year music lists are certainly common enough, but it’s hard to fathom what provoked the inclusion of such a list in Guns and Eggroll magazine. Moreover, the list is clearly tailored to enthusiasts of both military-grade assault rifles and Chinese takeout. Worst-case scenario, this is an obscure list of not very good music. Best-case, where else are you going to hear about Moo Shu Shotgun’s album Duck Blind Duck Sauce?

Best Books With Stains 2020
It’s astounding the abuses our books take. From Dorito smudges to crime-scene-calibre blood splatters, this list certainly features a diversity of bookish blemishes. Some of the images are intriguing (a coffee stain that’s a remarkable likeness of Geena Davis in her prime), and you might be drawn in by some of the accompanying origin stories (Jelly! A Jehovah’s Witness! Kangaroos!). But don’t let down your guard; once you read what the stain consists of in that copy of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and how it got there and how many people were involved and what the police did and what they found there and, even worse, over there, you may never borrow a book from the public library again.

Top Muffins 2020
They all contain raisins.

Best 2020 Movies Featuring Cats That Isn’t Cats
This is really just a list of every movie in 2020 that included a scene with a cat, seemingly made for the sole purpose of excluding Cats, the box-office bomb that was wall-to-wall cats but ruined by horrible CGI and Taylor Swift. Seems like a lot of work for such a small joke, but so is this entry you’re reading. (Year of the Cat!) If you are interested in movies with cats in them, however, this list is for you, although the only movie featuring a cat that matters is Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

Best Guys Named Ray Coated in Honey 2020
You see one guy named Ray coated in honey, you’ve seen them all, right? You’d think so, but dipping into this “bee-st” of list reveals the vast parade of humanity in its many gooey guises. Whether standing stoic and sticky in a Petco parking lot (which is just begging for complications, if you ask me) or being hauled forcibly out of dentist’s chair by increasingly gummy security, these Rays of sunshine are committed to one thing: being smothered in massive amounts of bee vomit. You would think there would be a kind of beauty in all that glistening sweetness, but you would be wrong. These are guys named Ray, and they tend to be a hairy lot. Hair and honey; talk about “Winnie the Ewwwwww…”

Top 10 Monoliths 2020
Not that there isn’t something fascinating about monoliths that appear mysteriously in the Utah desert and then disappear, only to reappear in Romania. Are they messages from alien life forms, performance art, marketing ploy, just another aspect of 2020 to fret about? Intriguing stuff! The problem is that, monolith-wise, that’s about it. Those are the big two. [Update: This just in!] The rest of this list is made up of wannabe monoliths or, at best, monolith lite: a slab of drywall stuck in a sandbox, a ladder painted silver in a field and what is clearly a billboard from the 1950s advertising Ol’ Coot Chewing Tobacco (“If Yer Donkey’s Hee-Hawin’, Ya Better Git Chawin’!”).

10 Best Brets 2020
After former WWE wrestler Bret “Hitman” Hart, Poison frontman Bret Michaels, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens and author/über-wank Bret Easton Ellis, the remaining top six Brets in this list are all Bret Brooklangton, an Arizona taxidermist who paid $1.7 million to read his list during a commercial break on Fox News’ “Jesus Is My Pit Crew Chief.” It was all for a girl, of course. It didn’t work. Such a Bret…

Best Schools Without COVID Cases 2020
At least it’s a short list.

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We Have Some Unsettling Nudes

Thank God.

Every now and then I remember the time I was blackmailed in college and I think, “Huh, that was weird.”

When I enrolled at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, I was assigned to Bennett, a men’s residence that had the reputation of being the campus Animal House. The reputation was deserved.

Bennett was famous for its parties. These included the annual beach party, which entailed filling the hallway with sand and wading pools. Add several spilled drinks and other fluids and this was not looked upon fondly by the administration or the cleaning staff.

Another activity was the sauna, a jerry-rigged steam room made by sealing off the washroom entrance with garbage bags and then running the showers on full hot. Keep this scene in mind.

Why the admissions people thought Bennett would be a good fit for an insecure, virginal band geek, I don’t know, but, after a few weeks of living in fear, I learned to embrace the shenanigans, so much so that I re-enlisted for a second year.

During that second year, there was a guy in the house we’ll call Merv. Merv was a pretty cool cat, and he and I got along well, though I couldn’t say we were close. I think Merv might have been a Fine Arts student, for reasons that will soon become clear.

One day, our floor set up a sauna. As was often the case, alcohol was involved. Steam, beer, youth – things got quite blurry for me that day.

About a week later, I found an envelope in my mailbox. I opened it right there in the mailroom. Inside was a black-and-white photograph of me coming out of the sauna. Starkers. A full-frontal portrait. It might have been titled, “Naked Youth With Beer.” The beer was for scale.

We’ve all looked at ourselves naked in the mirror, but seeing a photo of yourself naked is an entirely outside perspective. It’s like hearing your voice for the first time and discovering your voice is skinny, pale and hairless. I looked like one of those featureless, smooth-skinned aliens stumbling out of the mother ship. Remember, I was only 20 years old and had not yet reached my physical peak, which I am still waiting for.

Shocked and horrified, I shoved the picture back in the envelope. I was, after all, in the mailroom. There was also a note of some sort, demanding cash or something and if I didn’t respond… what? It’s weird that I can’t remember the nature of the extortion yet the image itself is burned in my mind (as I’m sure the mental image is now burned in yours).

To make a nude story short, I eventually deduced that the prank was the work of Merv. Whether I paid some kind of ransom, I don’t recall, but I know I eventually got and destroyed the original negative along with the print.

It was all a joke, of course. Yet somewhere along the way Merv had to develop that negative in a darkroom, and if you’ve ever developed prints, you know it takes a lot of studious eyeballing to make sure you get the shadows and (ahem!) highlights just right. (Insert “enlarger” joke here.) In other words, Merv spent more time than I’m comfortable with staring at my Heineken.

Merv left school not long afterwards, for completely unrelated reasons. I assume.

Today, I take it for the thing it was: a prank. But then I think, man, that was weird. Who does that? Even if I never felt violated, some kind of line was crossed.

And yet, and yet…

This whole incident popped into my head this week, on the morning of my 55th birthday. Maybe it was the realization that all that smooth skin has now become spotted and crepey. While I can guarantee you that I am much less likely to wander naked into a hallway, with or without beer, part of me misses the days when I did.

Such is the curse of chronic nostalgia, that middle-age yearning to reconnect with the past now that time has worn the edges off all its complications and pain. All we’re left with are those rosy memories of vigorous youth. It’s why we pull out old yearbooks and photo albums, why we reconnect with long-lost friends.

So part of me wonders if I should have hung onto Merv’s photo, just so I could remember, ever so faintly, what it was like to be 20 and have a 20-year-old’s body.

Naaah, gross! Yuck!

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Archie glad I cleaned house?

With no fanfare or warning, an important piece of Murray household history was quietly mothballed Sunday when two beloved Archie Digests were removed from the downstairs bathroom.

The artefacts were displaced by Ross Murray, the household’s co-founder and resident curator, whose job it also is to clean the toilets once a week.

“It was time,” said Mr. Murray. “Those books promoted an outdated hetero-normative social view that both objectified women and promoted unrealistic beauty standards while perpetuating patriarchal gender roles. Plus they were all wiggly from the shower steam.”

The digests were on permanent display for many years on a shelf above the toilet next to the Q-Tips and a basket of half-used hotel soaps. Previously, however, they had been featured in the temporary exhibit, “Things Left On the Toilet Paper Dispenser Shaped Like a Tiny Outhouse” (2014), and also in the earlier conceptual work, “Stop Leaving Books On the Floor for People to Trip Over,” (2009-2018).

While one digest – a B&V Friends Double Digest – was dated only from 2013, the second Archie’s Double Digest No. 169 was published as far back as 2006 and is believed to have been deposited in the downstairs bathroom a short time later. This latter volume was on temporary loan to the upstairs bathroom from 2008 to 2010 before being returned with some water damage.

The exact origins of these two artefacts are unknown, though one theory suggests they were tossed onto a grocery store checkout when a household parent wasn’t looking and then, you know, once they discovered it, they couldn’t put it back because then they’d look like a heel in front of the cashier who they play volleyball with, plus it’s a small town and it’s only, what, five bucks?

Today, the two volumes are evaluated to be worth upwards of zero dollars and zero cents.

Once beloved enough to prompt the frequent cry, “Are you doing anything in there or are you just reading Archies?”, in recent years the digests have fallen out of favour, what with the shift from paper-based plumbing-centric distractions towards digital-format washroom diversions.

In addition, apparently there is now a live-action Archie series that involves sex and murder and somehow Jughead is hot?

With none of the household children remaining at home fulltime, unrealistic tales of drama-free casual dating went unread, as had the exploits of teenage witches and their talking cats, and of course Archie, both normal size and Little. And yet the digests remained there next to the tube of Polysporin (2001; expired), which says something about their sentimental value as well as Mr. Murray’s cleaning skills.

Despite the current disinterest in Weatherbeethan sagas, the digests’ removal from the downstairs bathroom did raise concern, as news quickly spread to the former household children because Dad sent a group text. “I know there’s been a lot to process this past year,” he wrote, “but I wanted to let you know that I’ve removed the Archies from the downstairs bathroom.”

“Big move,” eldest daughter Emily stoically replied.

“Wow,” said middle daughter Katie, without having the decency to temper the ambiguity of said “wow” with some kind of emoji.

“Don’t throw them out,” said son James, who’s not big on change.

Perhaps too emotionally stricken to text an “OMG” or even a “B&V,” youngest daughter Abby did not reply. So this writer has made up words for her instead:

“The household has no respect for our cultural heritage or bathroom reading material,” she didn’t say. “Even before I could read, the Riverdalean antics of Reggie, Big Ethel, et al revealed to me that I was clearly a Betty with Veronica aspirations.”

She did not continue: “I had hoped that one day I would be able to share this glimpse into the human condition with my own daughter so that she too could learn to manipulate boys and be manipulated in turn. Now I’ll have no option but have her watch ‘Friends’ instead.”

Mr. Murray noted that, while the Archies had been removed from the bathroom, they had been placed in a secure location, namely on the living room book shelf with the old Calvin & Hobbes books and Mr. Murray’s own journals of adolescent-era cartoons that, honestly, showed real promise back in the day.

“This is the Murray household,” he said. “Nothing gets thrown away. Plus, there’s still a Double Digest in the upstairs bathroom, and that one’s from 2002.”

Asked if that digest would be retired as well, Mr. Murray promised he would get to it.

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My poker face has become a bad bet

My wife has a tell. If she’s about to lose her cool, you know it. The kids know it. I definitely know it.

“Uh-oh,” we whisper in chilled tones. “Cheekbones…”

That clenching of the jaw is the signal to abandon all hope. Whatever the argument was, you have lost. Those cheekbones are domestic kryptonite. “Come on, let’s see that beautiful smile!” is a thing you never want to say when you see those cheekbones.

I never thought I had a tell. I’m more of a closed book—a book your grandmother gave you for Christmas when you were 14 (Thrilling Adventures in Christian Hygiene), a book that you just can’t bear to throw away, mainly because it’s just the right thickness to keep the table from wobbling. I’m that kind of book.

But these days, I feel like I’m nothing but tell. The older I get, the less able I am to disguise my expression. I’ve completely lost my poker face.

I’ve been in countless meetings over the past months dealing with all the things we have had to deal with in 2020, and most of the time I simply sit quietly and listen, because someone has to. But there have been a couple of instances when the speaker has paused to say, “Ross, you look like you disagree…”

I can’t tell you exactly what my face looks like in those moments. I expect it is somewhere between a frown and gas retention. The problem is my disagreement has become clear, and now I actually have to commit to a position, which was what I was trying to avoid by sitting quietly in the first place; there is a 75 to 92 percent chance that my position is imbecilic. Continue reading

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