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Megan Power MEGAN POWER lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Visit her blog: http://meganpower.blogspot.com

Recent Work By Megan Power

You are studiously minding your own business in the library one sharp, grey winter afternoon.

The undergrad is a table and a generation away, typing on his black Acer. Your eyes wander and meet. A clinical glance is exchanged. Some time later you cause a hideous copier jam, which the undergrad happens to witness and very kindly, very messily resolves. Both chagrined, hands blackened.

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If you put all the components of summer in a blender – barbeques, swimsuits, campfires, love, ice cream – and mix them up, you get a parade.

Is anything more summery than a parade?

And let’s, for nostalgia’s sake, make it a small town parade. A small town parade is a mortally personal affair.

Aunt Ethel inscribed this aphorism in a cookbook she gave my parents as a wedding gift. 37 fruitful years ago.

I chafe a little at the notion of cooking as romantic epoxy. Like, who’s supposed to be back there slicing and dicing, keeping the marriage together? We all know whose job cooking is.

Or was.

Look around Aunt Ethel! Today we have 24 hour jumbo buffets across town and Any’tizers Buffalo-Style Chicken Wyngs in the freezer.

Besides easy access to convenient foodstuffs, no one has time to cook, ok? In our goal addicted, Cult of Productivity society? Not so much.

Deep down I know old Aunt Ethel is unfashionably right.

Just because women are no longer relegated to slaving over a hot stove does not mean the kitchen has lost its tremendous power.

“There is no sincerer love,” said Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, “than the love of food.”

Research suggests most married couples have sex seven times a month (less than twice a week). Compare that to 21 meals per week and you might reach for the grocery list.

Definitely I have a standard dish – who doesn’t – to feed lovers or potential ones. I want to appear talented in every room in the house.

My ol’ faithful is Atlantic salmon accompanied by salad, baguette, wine, +/- steamed asparagus.

Honey Teriyaki Salmon

Combine in a mixing bowl 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup honey, juice of half a lemon, 1 clove garlic. Whisk til honey dissolves.

Marinate 1 pound of fresh salmon fillet in mixture for 4 hours.  Or just baste the fillet with it.

Broil salmon at 375 for approx 15 minutes

This dish has slaying power. Serving it predictably results in kissin’ – even if the kissin’ is not, sadly, bound to last.

British actor Richard Grant recently declared in an interview that cooking has kept his marriage going for 23 years, and in April Scarlett Johansson told People magazine how much she enjoyed cooking for her new husband. “I find it very therapeutic,” she said. “I put on some music, maybe have a glass of wine, and make something like a turkey Bolognese or a nice frittata.”

Frittatas are, like, Level 7 to me. I don’t aspire to a Julia and Julie type of undertaking at all; carcasses are where I draw the culinary line. I will never have my own apiary or bake bread from scratch (unless, I guess, if Ryan Reynolds were my husband. In Scarlett’s shoes I too might venture into Top Chef territory).

But besides accepting it as relationship superglue I’m beginning to see cooking as an oddly helpful writing tool.

“Writing is not a monolithic process just as cooking is not a monolithic process. You don’t just go in the kitchen and cook – you do a number of very specific things that you focus on one at a time – you peel garlic, you dice garlic, you saute onions – these are separate processes. You don’t just go into a kitchen and flap your arms and just cook – and in the same way, you don’t just ‘write’.”

-Screenwriter Stephen Fischer

Yesterday my father guilted me into helping him shuck ten pound of clams he won at a golf tournament. It was a sublime, mindless hour during which I ‘thought up’ the perfect ending for a story I’ve been agonizing over for months.

There’s a strong case to be made for writers to cook often:

“New findings in neuroscience indicate that your brain is often at its best when your body is engaged in low-level, undemanding activities…a state of “meta-awareness” helps you work on long-term problems. “For creativity, you need your mind to wander,” research psychologist Jonathan Schooler told the New York Times.”

- Globe and Mail July 2, 2010

As the locavore movement dovetails with the recession, maybe we’re all going back into the kitchen, slowly, genders together this time.  I watch my parents mingle with hipsters on Saturday mornings at the Farmer’s Market, everyone stopping to listen attentively while a man selling organic chicken for four bucks a pound explains how transporting birds to the abbatoir seriously stresses them. So he slaughters them on the farm himself (with love).

In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, writer Richard Wrangham makes the slightly awful argument that cooking led to pair bonding way back in barbarian times:

“There’s this huge distinction in most cultures between the status of men as bachelors or married men. It’s only when the man is married that he gains status and he gains it because he can do two things: He can go off during the day to do manly things—to hunt or raid the neighboring group or check on girlfriends in neighboring camps or sit around chatting and politicking—and still count on the evening meal. And the second thing: When another man invites him for a meal, he can reciprocate. And until he can reciprocate, he’s not part of the community of equals.

Cooking underlies this whole critical distinction because until the bachelor can rely on someone providing him cooked food, he must do the work himself, which means he can’t do the manly things properly.”

Hard to swallow, but anthropology and Aunt Ethel make sense. Cooking more = better relationship & better stories.

Men’s Health magazine runs an outstanding recipe feature aimed at status-less bachelors who have not secured the evening meal. Highly recommended for bachelorettes without status too.

Ironing is another mindless creativity-inducing activity I endorse. But – not to worry – I won’t devote a post to that.

Can you give us your love recipe below?

ROME, ITALY

The Trenitalia queue at Termini station twists all the way around a glass bookstore past the escalators and out the front doors into the sun shining on scuzzy Via Marsala.

It is ten times longer than the line for the Sistine Chapel and much less ebullient. People are sitting on their suitcases, listening to their iPods with faraway looks, combing through their guidebooks, crowding the Info kiosks, making distraught calls and snapping at each other. The trains are all booked until Thursday and so are the buses. The people in line today are buying tickets for three days ahead. Travel within the country is near capacity but there is some space. So you can sort of move around Italy but leaving it is difficult. Getting all the way back home is not an option for some of us.

I’ve been travel stranded before, mostly by blizzards. It’s useless to call the airline or cop an attitude. Find a hotel room and call home (in that order). Rome has more hotel rooms than frescoes but a lot of people who’ve checked out and gone to the airport find they need to turn around and come back. So I’ve been moving around each day to a different hotel. It’s kind of fun to have to do that.

Being stranded in Italy is like getting locked in a closet with a person you want to kiss badly at a party you need to be leaving.

I understand people have babies to get back to, medical school board exams, job interviews, sick relatives and other urgent matters awaiting them. But if you have none of that, the volcanic ash cloud has handed you a magnificent gift. With a guilty glee, relinquish a credit card and go with it.

The bulk of the tourists in Italy seem to be French and Spanish. Though they arrived by low cost carriers like RyanAir they are opting to get home by train since flights keep getting cancelled. It feels like the only people truly stranded are the English speakers – Brits and North Americans. We aren’t going anywhere. Possibly the Brits will get back by warship from Spain if things don’t improve by the weekend.

The English speakers bitch in small clusters wearing grim expressions and waving away sellers who want them to buy hop on/hop off bus tours of Rome for twenty euros, special price for you.

Through all this, the stazione Termini homeless people go on sleeping and a smiley promo team hands out sample size cans of Coke Zero and police in handsome uniforms chase fake bag sellers from Morocco down a shady alley. A scoop of chocolate gelato falls off a German man’s cone onto his white Lacoste shoe. Church bells pong from a dozen different directions simultaneously and two pigeons battle over what appears to be an exceptionally dusty crust of pizza.

Life stalls for some and chugs along for the rest and you can’t cry for too long because there’s so much to see and it will all be over soon.

So when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Find a table in the sun and order something to drink. Take it all in.


Did you know that while it’s perfectly acceptable for writers to submit work to publishers in a Word document, a publisher will never send a Word document to be printed?

Word is considered too “unstable” to print from. Content is too easily manipulated. Pagination and text move around too easily. The hard copy can come out different from what’s on the monitor.

So publishers require PDFs, usually generated from desktop publishing software programs like QuarkXpress.

After you’ve proofread and spellchecked text in Word, you can import it into Quark and begin the painstaking process of what editors and publishers refer to as “interior design”.

Cyprus

By Megan Power

Poem

I tap on his first floor window late
He parts the drapes, smiles faintly
Fag? I ask
He dresses for the cold
Joins me outside the residence entrance

We could be chest to chest
Steam enveloped in my shower
We could be front to back
Blanket wrapped in his bed
We could be mouth on mouth
Rain soaked in the park
We could be all this and
More anytime, anywhere
Right now
Redrawing the boundaries of our imaginations
Plunging into oblivion

Instead a thousand hours
In the cold dark we smoke
Inhaling exhaling three feet apart
On the butt-spangled walkway
Under partial moons and slapdash stars

Detailing particulars
Of the unremarkable
Schedules, forecasts, assignments
Without asking or having to he reaches into
My pocket for the lighter
Beyond that
It never goes

Some mix of
His understandable cowardice
Our lovely friendship
The twelve years
Between us

Detains

Drunk at the union or the pub
While the others carry on, their banter a perfect cover
He stares at me in a way that makes me itch
I can arrange him for you, he sneers, if I glance too long at someone
And I laugh as cruelly as possible,
Go on then
We gather our tools, go out to the patio and
Smoke

Meet him halfway
Provide a signal or
Create an opportunity
I can’t, won’t and shouldn’t
He’s the one with
Illusions left to amputate
A big blank book of failures

My need is not him-specific
Only even projected in his general direction
Since he’s always right in front of me
Smoking, a thousand hours in the dark

I mean – I’d be gentle
Oh so gentle
But his heart needs to be a sieve
Whereas now it is a kite

Something is possible between us
I’m not sure what
But a thing is possible


What photos have on words is speed.

Photos can be evocative, epiphanic and emblematic instantly, faster than the printed word.

They suck us in at the speed of sight. The speed of emotion.

Part of this is because we read slowly, averaging around 200 words per minute. The human brain can synthesize 4-6 times that fast, some experts estimate around 2,000 words per minute. So your mind actually has to slow down when you’re reading, which is why reading can make you tired. Schools should teach us to speed read.

Audio books are generally read at 160wpm.

Court reporters and other professional typists can do about 70 wpm.

Handwriting produces about 30 wpm.

On the back of this photo it says June, 1980 in an unfamiliar hand. Taken by Mr. Garber.

Difficult to recall Little Kippers, crooked pigtails, Mr. Garber or his sons who sandwich like white bread.

This photo captures a generically cute and utterly insignificant moment of my life. But it has the power to make me see beyond the present moment, the everydayness which blinds me to the possible. My mother sent it in a random care package with dish scrubbies, a handwritten note and some DrySol, and because its arrival coincided with my Generalized Life Dissatisfaction, I stuck it to the fridge as one would a postcard from some far away place.

I forget what I was like at that age. What I thought, how I acted. My mother remembers – loves to remember – but bias makes her an unreliable witness. Video cameras weren’t big back then. Toddlers didn’t have blogs. It was a less documented time. And so my childhood is an anthology of blurry memories like this one, moments that feel collective and half-real.

Photos are hair triggers for interior dialogue, catalysts for introspection, yardsticks of our evolution. Or, in some cases, stasis.

In the Power family albums, my radiant mother, impish father and sweet sister are apparent. But to me I seem a cipher.

I am you. You are not me yet.

By inevitable comparison, my once mutable identity has developed into something wooden. Like so many adults I’ve gone marking the limits of my intelligence and beauty and capability. The die’s been cast.

Over winter this photo adorned the fridge and later migrated to the bill holder, finally settling on a tower of Esquires which occupy the spare dining room chair. My shy smile, rosy cheeks, vacant eyes – attributes of toddlers everywhere – make me appear both adorable and impenetrable. Putty, possibility, enigma.

I examine myself at three, head like a clean attic and heart like a new car, and some interior fire alarm trips.

If I stepped into the frame and told the three year old me what she had to look forward to was working in an office and paying bills and getting drunk at happy hour and writing fuzz and many more hours holding hands with boys of equitable inconsequence, I am sure she would cry.

I think about how humiliating it would be to explain how I’ve ignored or dismissed most of her nascent dreams. She would ask why, as all children do, and then it would be my turn to cry.

“Too often for the sake of reason, people commit to the meaningless,” wrote Susan Sontag in her critical analysis On Photography.

Which is also a pithy summary of my personal situation for the past number of years.This is where I live. This is what I do. This is who I am. This is okay.

Photography invites us to dream.

Puts us in a meditative state.

Compels us to seek the truth.

In “The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography”, writer Patrick Maynard suggests that photography allows us “…to imagine seeing things…imagination trades in possibility, in questions about things or states of affairs that, while not currently realized, might prove realizable.”

Simulating the future and remembering share the same network of brain processes and regions, interestingly. Evidence suggests the brain sifts through fragments of memories, recombines them, then produces a picture of possible future events. In essence we clipart our possible selves from snippets of old mental photographs.

Which is why those with impaired memories, like amnesia patients, have difficulty speculating on their futures.

Some philosophers believe mental change is dependent on physical change. This theory is called supervenience.

So it would follow that the best way to reconfigure one’s interior is simply to pack up and move.

Maybe to a rocky island in the Atlantic where creative writing programs are easy to get into, somewhere quaint and historical, with good mass transportation.

Where a new self is entirely possible.

“It all began with a fuck,” goes the brash opening line of D.R. Haney’s first novel Banned for Life, and the strange seduction begins.

For those who haven’t read Haney’s sprawling debut, it follows Jason Maddox’s serio-comic adventures in the underground punk scene, stretching beyond mosh pit mayhem and barroom brawls to explore death and obsession and purpose. The author zigzags confidently between a resonant coming-of-age tale in North Carolina, la vie boheme in hardscrabble New York, and a tempestuous L.A. love affair which leads our narrator to Belgrade for climax and denouement.

Even readers ambivalent to punk will be drawn in by the peculiarly irresistible voice of Jason, who is at turns heartthrob, heartbroken and healed.

D.R. Haney tells TNB how he went from breaking guitars to becoming a serious novelist.

You’ve said it took 9 years to write the 400 page manuscript. What prevented you from going permanently insane during that time?

I’m not sure I didn’t. It was quite a ride. I mean, if there’s no blood on the keyboard, there should be. Broken bone and gray matter, too.

I was lucky to have good friends. That was my saving grace – that and music. It’s perhaps an embarrassing thing to say, but rock & roll has been a redemptive factor throughout my life. If I’m feeling bad, I only have to pick up a guitar or play a certain record, like “Arboretum” by Unwound or “The Rat” by the Walkmen, and my mood improves. My spiritual sense is absolutely tied to music, specifically to rock & roll.

Jason, the protagonist and narrator, confesses late in the book that his story is memoir “written as a novel for legal reasons”. Can you talk about this?

Well, the book certainly isn’t a memoir in the strict sense, but if it were, Jason would no doubt be worried about the potential for legal fallout, and just plain fallout, period.

I’ll say this much: there are characters in Banned that are very much based on real-life people, and I was (and continue to be) concerned with their reactions. I didn’t even bother to change the names in a few cases. Others are composites or purely the product of my imagination. But I think all narrative writing is finally fiction; it’s only a matter of degree.

Morally, Banned seems concerned with the search for personal meaning, which is achieved, mainly, through defeating a particularly American brand of boredom. Would you agree with this assessment?

To a certain extent, yes, though I think the American brand is something we’ve successfully exported to the rest of the world though movies and TV shows.

American entertainment is hugely popular, even among those who claim to hate us, and its appeal is its very mindlessness, in never allowing the viewer to become bored, when in fact boredom is the very thing is produces, no matter the initial giddiness.

For me, it’s worse than mere boredom; it amounts to the starvation of the soul, in dimmed sense, in unwitting complacency and conformity and alienation. It’s a culture of death. Ironically, death in America is a subject largely avoided, which to me is classically Freudian: you don’t want mentioned what you suspect yourself, perhaps rightly, to be.

I’m not proposing this as an original view. It’s been argued again and again, and there are counterarguments, but when the subject comes up in private conversation, I’ve almost never had anyone disagree with me. Most of us seem to recognize the effects of what I’m calling the culture of death, if not in ourselves then others. But there also seems to be a general feeling of, well, what’s to be done about it? That’s the world we live in. And it is. But the question for me at that point is: How to stay alive?

There’s obviously no single answer, but I do think, as you say, Jason in Banned is searching for a way that will work for him. And a classic starting point for anyone similarly alienated of Jason’s generation was punk rock, because it was forthrightly expressing rage in a way that was forbidden, and continues to be, by mainstream corporate media. These were kids who, whatever their flaws, refused to go along with the program, and that’s something I don’t really see anymore. I don’t think there will be another movement like punk in my lifetime, because we’re all too atomized and prematurely (in the case of the young) jaded, but I want to leave a record of it, and I think and hope Banned can be appreciated by people who dislike punk but still have a streak of resistance in them, or they’re looking to discover or recover it.

That’s what happened to Jason: he both discovered and had to recover it, because he’d once again succumbed to the culture of death.

I couldn’t get past hating the character of Irina. She’s insecure, a compulsive liar, intellectually unimpressive and yet Jason fetishizes her physical beauty. Did you intend for her to be so unlikable?

It’s interesting: I’ve had a number of women readers react as you did, but almost never any male readers.

I don’t know if that’s because men are more superficial than women, if they’re more easily bamboozled by physical beauty or what, but even male musicians I know – guys with deep roots in the punk scene – will read the book and comment mostly on Irina, and rarely in unfavorable terms. And, you know, in the book, Irina says that women don’t like her, so it seems as though that trend carries over with readers.

But to answer your question: I certainly wanted the reader to be exasperated by Irina; to feel about her as Jason feels as she leads him on this agonizing ride of l’amour fou. I mean, the reader is sort of Jason’s confidante, and if a friend comes to you and says, “And then she did this,” you’re almost certainly going to take his side. I personally believe Irina when she says she’s forced to lie because Jason is too possessive to listen when she tries to tell him the truth.

As for her physical beauty, that’s another funny thing, because I didn’t set out to make her so beautiful but she refused to be written any other way, which I’m sure owes to the woman who inspired her. However, I failed in making Irina as smart or as interesting as the woman who inspired her, and that woman was, shall we say, a tad upset when she read the manuscript.

Without giving anything away, could you tell us if in fact there is an Alexi? And if so, where is he?

I wish I could say he’s in Belgrade, but Alexi was kind of a last-minute idea that came to me as a way of trying to close a particular thematic circle. I considered him the riskiest thing I did in the whole book, even though he only appears for a second.

But I included him in part because of the risk. It seemed cowardly to back away from something that, thematically, made sense, at least to me.

Peewee is vivid and memorable. What is it about him, do you think, that makes him so compelling?

I personally think it’s his courage. I mean, here’s this tiny guy, but he’s got the balls to go against everyone and everything. He’s not even afraid to physically take on guys he knows are going to beat the crap out of him. Plus, he’s intellectually courageous, even though some of that arises from his considerable contrarian streak.

It’s also possible that he stands out partly because you know from the beginning of the book he’s going to die. So maybe, at least unconsciously, you think as you’re reading, “Oh God, please don’t let this happen.” I was literally sick with grief when I wrote about the accident. I loved, and love, him so much.

There’s a scene in the book where he has a showdown with his father and sinks to the floor in a flood of tears, and you really see, for the first time, the full extent of his damage. I think he suffered terribly. But what does he do? He cries it all out and walks back to Jason and says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” That says everything to me about Peewee. He’s a tragic but ballsy little guy.

What is your writing background?

I’m an autodidact. I learned by reading. I was never in a creative writing program or anything like that. And I also learned by doing, by writing a lot and poring over what I wrote and learning from my mistakes.

In terms of professional experience, I’ve had pieces published in zines and small magazines, that kind of thing. And I’ve done some screenwriting and I worked for a number of years on a novel that I ultimately had to scrap. That was a horrible experience, but again, I learned from it and the lesson was: Never, ever write another book told from multiple points of view.

Your sex scenes are…exuberant. How did you approach writing this type of material?

Well, there’s one scene that’s proven popular with early readers and I have to confess that in writing it I thought, “I never read sex scenes that do anything for me, and this one is going to.” It was the only moment in the book when I fully surrendered to my inner pornographer.

It must have worked, because I’ve had male friends, alas, report trips to the bathroom with Banned in hand. And my friend Jane told me she thought the Jason/Irina relationship was “hot”, and that was especially gratifying, not only beacuse it was coming from a woman but because I felt I was holding myself back with those bits.

I don’t know. The sex stuff was the same as the music stuff, the same as the Hollywood stuff: I just tried to put myself in that particular place and describe what I felt and saw.

Jason has a strained relationship with his parents. How has your own family reacted to Banned?

They haven’t read it. My mom wanted a copy, and I said, “Well, you know, Mom, this book is pretty shocking. Even the first sentence is shocking.” And I told her what it was, and she immediately decided this was not a book she preferred to read. I did consider sending a copy to my dad, who I thought would be more open, but my mom said, “Oh, no, your father wouldn’t understand that kind of thing at all.” Which is a pity, because he loves to brag about his kids’ accomplishments. I mean, I showed him the manuscript, which he never read, and he would display it to anyone who stopped by: “Here, look what my boy did.” But, again, he did that with no idea what was in it.

How did you celebrate the news Banned had been picked up by a publisher?

I didn’t, really, because I celebrated the completion of what I thought was the final draft in 2005 and within days I was rewriting it.

Also, I’d gotten an offer from [fellow TNB contributor] Brin Friesen to publish the book with his imprint, And/Or Press, following a reading we did together in 2006. It was only later, after I’d talked to other publishers, that I decided And/Or was the way to go.

The other publishers either wanted to alter the book where I thought it was unnecessary or they’d shake hands on deals only to renege; and I trusted Brin, who’s a friend and a novelist in his own right. Fortunately, he was still open to publishing Banned.

So the celebration may yet occur, when Brin is in L.A. or I’m in Vancouver. We’ve talked about doing a two-man reading tour. It’s only a matter of funds.

In the acknowledgements, Banned lists some recognizable names. Has there been any talk amongst your Hollywood connections of turning the novel into a film?

Some talk, yes. It’s just kind of a low murmur at this point – very low. But I do get the feeling the talk will grow and get louder.

How did you arrive at the title?

Originally the book had a title that now makes me wince. And then that title was used by somebody else and I was in a great state about it, and one day I was reading something in, I think, Spin magazine about a band getting banned for life from Holiday Inn – the whole chain – and I thought, “You know, ‘banned for life’ would be a terrific title for the book.”

As I’ve said, there’s a life/death motif that runs throughout the book along with a big/small motif, among others. So I called a few friends and said, “What do you think?” and everybody seemed to like it as a title so Banned for Life it was.

What’s next for you?

I’ve always been interested in the old physiology-as-destiny idea, in how appearance shapes the way we’re regarded and leads to success or the lack of it, and studies have shown that, contrary to widespread belief, men are judged just as much on appearance as women. Also, I tend to write a lot about brothers, which undoubtedly has to do with my having three of them, so I’m working on a new book concerned with all of the above.

At the moment I’m calling the book Handsome, in tribute to a nineties band of the same name. But I find myself embarrassed whenever I mention it, so it will probably end up getting changed.

Thanks for “talking” to us!

No, thank you. It’s my honor to be asked.

My parents’ big beige White Westinghouse stocked with foodstuffs
New and old, foreign and domestic, healthy and hedonic
From the adjustable top rack to the stay-crisp drawers and even the interior door shelving

702 W. Martin, the cute puffy red cartoon star on my Mapquest map, turns out to be a creepy, rundown cinderblock high rise. The grass is worn away in big patches and the windows are lined with garbage bags, aluminum foil or blankets. It smells like a hundred people have been cooking potent ethnic food in concert with their doors open. Mariachi music plays at hearing damage volume from a ground level unit.

But the view is breathtaking.

Step off the grimy elevator on the twelfth floor and you’re served up a panoramic cityscape that typically comes with luxury condos: Tower of the Americas surrounded by overlapping multi-tier freeways, a colorful stream of vehicles flowing by like shiny toys, the enchilada red central library flanked by punchy green trees, clusters of skyscrapers made of blue, black and bronze reflective glass glinting in the sun. An airbus glides in silently, smoothly, extra white against the giant blue Texas sky.

A black boy in his teens wordlessly answers my knock at 1224. He is morbidly obese. I introduce myself. As he lifts his arms to take the heavy box of dishes, his body odor overpowers the air. He walks across the living room, where two half-inflated air mattresses sit in the middle of the floor with three males of discrepant ages sprawled across them, and disappears into the kitchen. The air mattress guys acknowledge me with a cursory glance and then turn back to a small TV, also on the floor. Two shopping carts draped with clothes function as makeshift closets against one wall and an immaculate, beautiful baby sucking on a pacifier is standing up in a ratty playpen against the opposite wall. Cheesy Puff smithereens cover the concrete floor.

The big kid comes back with middle age woman who shuffles unevenly toward me.

Scuse the mess, she says brightly. We’re just trying to get by.

We’re all just… I let my platitude trail off. It rings hollow and the TV drowns out my voice anyway. Her apology is less to me than to the world.

I tell her I need to go back down to the car.

Oh Anthony can help you, she says.

I’d really rather he not, but I can’t think how to phrase this nicely so I just smile.

He’s big but he don’t bite, she laughs, looking up at him with adoration. Anthony scratches his massive arm.

We wait for the elevator and gaze out over the penthouse view.

What school do you go to? I ask. He mentions one I’ve never heard of.

Are you from San Antonio? I ask.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t offer anything else. There’s something wrong with him but I don’t know what.

We really appreciate all this, the woman says as I’m leaving.

It’s no problem, I reply. Take care.

****

On weekends I deliver oven mitts and such to crazy people.

Years ago this lady named Patsy started a non-profit called Home Comforts, a donation service for the chronically mentally ill when they get discharged from the state hospital. Patsy’s son lost his mind pretty young, back in the day. They gave him a little therapy, lots of drugs and turned him loose.

Home Comforts doesn’t do clothes or food. Only the other stuff – spatulas and shower curtains and alarm clocks.

Having a stable place to live, we can all agree, is a basic human right. It is also considered the cornerstone of recovery for the mentally ill.

The largely female executive board of Home Comforts refer to themselves as “the ladies with the can openers.”

****

1403, Tanya’s apartment, is a corner unit all the way around back next to two big blue dumpsters. The complex is called The Mirage, smack dab in the middle of the Medical Center on the west side of town. A big plastic banner outside the leasing office announces Move Ins Available Immediately – From $475/month.

I’m not sure The Mirage is an appropriate apartment complex name for a chronically mentally ill person.

One of my co-workers used to live here. The amenities include a small outdoor pool, clothes care center, barbeque areas and a mini gym. Any apartment complex financed by city-issued tax-exempt bonds is required to set aside 20% of the units for low-income tenants for a period of 30 years. You may know this as Section 8 housing. Sections 8s are in very limited supply and they’re always the units no one else would want: the ones by dumpsters, the ones way across the parking lot on the fifth floor overlooking a drainage ditch. The chronically mentally ill qualify for Section 8 twofold: they’re considered disabled and they’re always very low-income.

Tanya’s stuff has been in my trunk for like two weeks, which nearly drove ME crazy, because I kind of can’t stand to have stuff lying around not in its rightful spot. My car stinks powerfully of knockoff Tide powder and Compare to Pine Sol cleaner and industrial plastic packaging for things like sheet sets and ironing board covers. It smells like brain cancer.

The chronically mentally ill are not good at the phone. They have phone anxiety. Their meds make them sleep a lot. For these and other reasons, Patsy instructs without elaborating, try not to call them too much.

Finally one Saturday afternoon Tanya answers on ring six, just as I’m thinking I’m pushing it.

Oh hey, thanks for calling, she says breezily.

What would be a good time? Will she be home this afternoon?

Yeah, my mother’s just taking me to get groceries right now, then I’ll be back around 4:30. Would that work?

Tanya does not sound even marginally crazy. Her voice is clear and even, her syntax normative. This disappoints me. I am disappointed with myself for being disappointed but the truth is I wanted a small challenge in dealing with her. I don’t just want to deliver something, I want deliverance.

Tanya’s Big Lots Extra Value white with blue trim dishes rattle precariously over the speed bumps within the apartment complex. She answers the door in three phases: small crack, halfway crack, wide open. She’s got that hospital chub and a huge nest of curly hair, which has been lassoed into a hasty ponytail. The stench of cat urine forces me to mouth breathe. Small balls of what appears to be toilet paper festoon the living room floor. There’s a heavily stained recliner and a large Sanyo TV on top of a sagging Rubbermaid storage tub and small folding oak table covered in telltale orange prescription bottles. A kaleidoscope-shaped splash of Coke or coffee has dried on one of the walls.

She starts unloading the bags as soon as I set them down.

Oh wait, these are queen? I don’t know what size my mattress is. Can you hold on while I see if they fit?

I don’t mind. I can use the practice holding my breath.

This is it.

I pick up a shit ton of stuff.

Call a little.

Go to their place.

Help them unpack maybe.

Make awkward small talk for sure.

Try not to look at their sad, stinky life always. Then leave. And that’s it.

Volunteering for the Extremely Lazy and Existentially Guilty.

****

Mapping the human genome excited scientists so much because they were going to be able to find the genes that caused cancer or schizophrenia. Find those suckers and shut them off.

But in the couse of human genome mapping, it was discovered that single genes don’t cause cancer or schizophrenia.

It is the interaction between genes that fucks a person up.

Specifically, DNA methylation.

****

Construction makes finding the Henry B. Gonzalez housing projects on Ingram and Callaghan tricky. The late Henry B. was a rare Texas Democrat, a social justice pitbull. He still holds the state legislature filibuster record – in 1957 he talked for 22 hours straight against segregation.

I keep getting booted around the same intersection, which is giving ME incredible anxiety. Not because I mind going in circles, shoot, I’m always getting lost around here but because a crazy person is waiting. I must show up on time. I must not be late. I am a reliable, predictable and gift-bearing representative of the (comparatively) mentally healthy world.

Finally I veer onto a side street and after a few loops randomly and magically arrive at Henry B., which consists of about fifty 1 bedroom units in single story brick buildings, clustered much like a budget travel lodge. In a central garden area, a forlorn-looking latticed gazebo sits vacant.

I only have her initials, A.M. (Patsy explained she wants her privacy respected). 301 is easy to find. A.M. answers the door, and I’m taken aback momentarily. She is enormous in her flowered muuumuu and thick, outdated plastic frames. Her hair seems to be coated in oil. A metal cane supports her huge frame. The apartment has the persistent smell of new paint. Unopened boxes cover every floor surface.

She just moved in then?

Oh no, I’ve been here about a month, she says plainly. I’ve been so depressed though, just haven’t felt like unpacking.

I smile sympathetically, as if I might understand the effects of chemical sadness. Which of course I do not. Unpacking and putting things in their assigned spaces is, for me personally, a reliable sort of happiness. But I shouldn’t say that. Should I? I don’t know. My entire mental health training is two viewings of Girl, Interrupted. I’m just here to hand over a shower curtain and some measuring cups. So I tell A.M. I’ll be right back, there’s more stuff in the car.

With exertion, she takes the bags from me and piles them on top of her unopened boxes. She signs the delivery confirmation form, dates it incorrectly, and peers at me through her big plastic lenses.

Yeah, I don’t what it is. I guess I’m just not used to being alone.

Finally you get out of the hospital, armed with your SSRIs and behavior modification plan and a new apartment and suddenly the crushing loneliness starts making the nuthouse look pretty good.

Patsy says most of the country’s mentally ill are either locked up or in homeless shelters. The L.A. County Jail has been called “the largest mental health treatment facility in the world”, spending more than $10 million annually on antipsychotic medication.

The ones who end up in housing projects, Patsy sighs, are like shipwreck victims who make it to shore.

****

DNA methylation is a normal chemical process that occurs as your cells divide or multiply, which they’re always doing, right now even, to replace dead or damaged ones.

Sometimes DNA methylation goes awry, for reasons no one understands yet, and then your genes can’t communicate clearly. They tell each other wrong things, or even nothing.

You’re suddenly full on bipolar. You’re officially schizophrenic. It’s too late: You’re Crazy.

****

The Arriba Apartments are almost on Blanco Road, like one foot away from the street, four crumbling green and white two story buildings between a Church’s Chicken and a Kwik Wash. Fried poultry and fabric softener are not a complimentary fragrance combination. Wayne lives in 412, where a scruffy long-haired black and brown cat is shitting in the dirt two feet from his door.

This one’s a GI, Patsy said when she gave me his mops. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or something else. Probably the something else.

I have no idea what the something else is. Patsy’s not in the habit of commenting on the clients and she never assigns me to men, so the whole thing is making me sorta scared. The shitting cat, though, I take to be a literal, spiritual reassurance. This situation is just shitty, not dangerous.

Waynes answers the door visibly upset and on the phone. He has three piercings in the skin below his bottom lip. Time Warner, he explains. They were supposed to come two days ago, then yesterday. The guy never showed up! I’ve been waiting all – yes? Hello? This is Wayne —-. I’m calling about my damn cable.

He’s a husky guy in denim shorts and a Green Bay Packers jersey and big black sneakers. His head has been shaved recently. The skin is pink. Wayne’s unit is completely empty except for two cardboard boxes and a green duffel bag with a busted strap shoved into one corner. Fresh vacuum lines give the carpet two gradations of beige.

Sorry, he mouths to me.

It’s ok, I whisper. I’ll be right back.

While I make my trips to and from the car, Wayne sits cross-legged on the carpet and argues fervently with a Time Warner representative, someone who is using all the techniques they learned at How To Deal With Difficult People training, assuming they had such a thing. I give him a little wave to let him know I’m going.

Hold it! Hold on, he barks into the phone. He covers the microphone and says to me, Sorry, sorry. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

It’s ok, I reply, though he’s gone back to shouting. It’s no problem.

****

How does a person just lose it?

We almost know now.

Of course the stigma persists: bad drugs or bad parenting or bad coping skills. It’s hard to equate physical illness and mental illness. Hard to see cancer the same as depression.

Except on a chemical level, it is. Crazy is a disease you’re born with. Just like your inherited genes brew up lymphoma for years before you need chemo (and smoking/eating pork ribs every day doesn’t help matters) mania sits latently in your DNA, waiting to methylate and unleash its fury.

Researchers now believe it is some combination of hereditary and environmental factors that make people crazy, not just one or the other.

This represents a major shift. It means we’re heading in a new two-prong direction.  We’re getting closer.

It’s fucking exciting.

A megastar movie based on a New York Times best-selling book based on a Sex & The City episode drops February 6th. Fashioning an acerbic advice book into a screenplay is a feat only writers like Charlie Kaufman can safely ignore.

He’s Just Not That Into You was published in 2004 and struck a significant chord. It seems only fair if not mildly treasonous to return the favor to men.

My baseline position is that men usually know when a woman is just not that into them (unlike women, who are masters of self-delusion, false optimism and denial). You men, you don’t care. You get off on a certain level of pursuit. Experience has taught you the power of persistence. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, etc.

Fine.

But for those men who are tired of treading water, sick of being a chump and especially for those poor souls who have clearly lost their way, let the following be your guide.

1. She’s Just Not That Into You if she doesn’t offer to pay for shit.

Women will keep men in their lives they have no feelings for simply because these men whip out their wallets on cue. Practical necessity? OK sometimes. Learn to spot the far more common garden variety greediness. It’s not something we’re wracked with guilt over either (hello, we still make seventy five cents to your dollar for the exact same job. If you want to try to make that up to us, we sure as hell will let you). Unless we’re really into you. A girl who’s into you will at minimum offer to pay. It’s the gesture of offering that tells a man how a woman feels and, additionally, if she’s up to the task of true partnership. Even a woman earning diddly squat will pick up the tab for cheap things like coffee or breakfast. And she’ll give you stuff: books, burned CDs, baby cactuses, bus passes. Tokens of her affection. If your girl don’t pay for shit and don’t give you tiny little presents, she is using you for your money.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you bank. You don’t even mind paying for every single bar tab, restaurant bill, movie ticket, airfare, trip to the mall. It makes you feel generous and important and manly to be able to provide such things for the girl in your life. Especially if said girl is hot, and she’s in school getting her degree and can’t afford those sexy Nine West stiletto boots…

Dude, you are being used. If you’re ok with that, you have self esteem issues. You need counseling. A month surfing solo in Costa Rica. Something. How can you not know how many badass women are out there? Women who have their shit together financially and everything-else-ily?

Getting used for money is so 1998. Grow a fucking pair. You can rent someone’s heart or you can experience the bliss of love. Do either with open eyes.

2. She’s Just Not That Into You if she claims she’s “not over” her ex.

Both genders use this tired excuse – it’s the easiest way to turn someone down. Soften the blow. Even get some sympathy. Do not be fooled or moved! Do not try to help her through it! Do not stick around! Be smart and disappear. The only appropriate response to a girl making this claim is, “I sincerely wish you best of luck getting over so and so. I really hope you can work though it and feel better. Give me a call next July.” And she might. But the point is, the truth is, most people will suck it up and throw some duct tape over their busted heart if a new person they consider attractive, smart and nice comes sniffing around. Plus the only surefire way to get over an ex is to date someone else so it’s pretty counterintuitive to play the “oh it’s too soon” card. Go ahead and call bullshit. TIP: a good vetting device? Date people close to your level of singlehood. Single for seven months? Nice to meet you. Broke up last weekend? Excuse me gotta go.

3. She’s Just Not That Into You if you’re doing her.

Hooking up leads to love as often as LinkedIn leads to a dream job. Why do we pretend it can work? Because it’s a convenient belief. Because we’re horny. Women are dying to get off too you know and sometimes biological urges override our emotional braking system. Still, we’re all apprised of the odds. Chances are if she’s really into you, she’s terrified of messing things up between you two by adding horizontal gymnastics into the mix. She’s probably dying to get naked but resisting the impulse with varying levels of success. Conventional wisdom holds that good relationships sprout from causal friendships, which progress at normal speed into romances.  Love rarely blooms after a night of hard drinking at Lucky Lounge.  It’s also wise not to underestimate the effect of squawking norms from yesteryear which told women they were “sluts” if they “put out” too soon. Many women still equate sex with leverage somehow. So if you and your girl are having doggy style Thursdays it’s not love. It’s not even in the neighborhood of love. It’s sport. Cool? Cool. Just don’t go around pretending you’re her boyfriend. You’re not. Which isn’t to say you won’t ever be. C’est posible. People win the lottery every day. The odds never change, but it does happen.

4. She’s Just Not Into You if she speaks flippantly about excretory or menstrual functions.

These are topics of excrutiating shame in the romantic realm, at least initially. And at least initially a woman will usually avoiding pooping in a five mile radius of a guy she’s really into. It’s not healthy or easy but it’s what we do. If a girl is reporting her bowel movements or flow density in an offhand manner/in graphic detail, you have been relegated to Friend status. It could take years before she realizes you’re boyfriend material. Don’t you think you deserve a woman who isn’t voluntarily blind? Who can plainly see how awesome you are? Get this girl a Costco bulk pack of Always with Wings and tell her you can’t wait forever.

5. She’s Just Not That Into You if she takes her sweet ass time returning your calls.

If a woman never calls you, you cannot tell anything from this. Through various channels of public mockery women have been made aware of our tendency to call men too much. We sorta for the most part get it. You don’t like being stalked. Roger that, loud and clear. But not returning your calls is something else entirely. If she doesn’t call, email or text you back within a day or two sorry she is just not that into you. Keep on moving.

6. She’s Just Not That Into You if some guy is slapping her ass at the bar.

If she is openly giving other guys attention right in front of your face (see also: getting hit on and loving it), she is an attention whore. Let her be one. Peacefully walk away. Far away. As my friend Lisa*, avid collector of men she’s not really into puts it, “A girl who’s really into you doesn’t create a space for that to happen.” If you two are at the bar and some guy’s patting her butt while she giggles and meekly swats his paw away, you’re choopped liver. See the exit sign over there? Follow it. Go to the next bar. Meet the kickass woman who’s waiting over there for someone great like you.

7. She’s Just Not That Into You if you get the side hug.

How does she hug you? It’s important. It says a lot. The side hug, the one arm, or worse, the Oprah hug (greets with all body contact blocked, interlacing fingers of both hands with yours) speak volumes. The hug of a girl who’s really into should include both arms. Some breast contact. Pelvis touching or nearly touching. Slow to part. Hugging her should be warm and slightly dizzying. It should feel good.

This concludes my post.

All the TNB ladies, all the TNB ladies

All the TNB ladies, all the TNB ladies

If you take umbrage with any of the above points, do feel free to explain or contribute your own ideas.

Men, you are welcome.

I’m keeping your shampoo and conditioner in case you ever come back to Texas, wind up staying in my bed and showering in my shower the next morning.

I’m keeping the soft, worn hospital blanket your mom “borrowed” from Fort Sam.

I’m keeping the David Yurman ring you gave me one Christmas. It was never really my style but you said it was the first ring you ever bought a girl. You were 28 years old when you said that.

I’m keeping some Skillets in the freezer in case you come back and maybe just want to come over for breakfast. This is your favorite breakfast (besides Eggs Benedict).

I’m keeping my hair long in case you come back even though I really want the Rihanna haircut. You always told me to keep it long. Anyway, it’s so cliche for girls to cut their hair post breakup.

I’m keeping the smiles/sea/drinks/sunset picture of us in Cabo on my bookshelf so you can remember the trip when we fell in love in case you come back.

I’m keeping your phone number and all three email addresses in the manila file folder labeled “Canada Documents” tucked in back of a coat closet. I had to delete them from my phone and laptop because the temptation to use them became nearly unbearable after we surpassed our previous breakup record of 22 days. But I might need them, in case you come back.

I’m keeping up appearances in case you come back. No badmouthing or crying in public. I ran into the Sprockett guy’s girlfriend last week. When she didn’t recognize me I reflexively said, “I’m Harry’s girlfriend.” Her lightbulb went on and mine dimmed. “Well…ex,” I corrected. “Ex-girlfriend.” A quick recovery.

I’m keeping the Spanish Dagger you left at my place. You used to huff on its leaves to speed up photosynthesis. You’ll want to see how well it’s doing, if you come back.

I’m keeping the radio preset to 89.1 in case you come back and want to discuss something from NPR. You’re the only person I know who wants to discuss what they heard on NPR. Actually you’re the only person I know who listens to NPR.

I’m keeping a low profile.

You can’t smoke, drink, cry, fuck or wish a person out of your system.

Can you write someone away? Maybe.

I’m keeping an open mind. To new possibilities.

And to old ones.

Fundamentals of Investing meets Tuesday nights in Room J113 at Sandra Day O’Connor High School on the east side of San Antonio.

Sandwiched between J111 (the scantly attended Build Your Own Drip Irrigation System) and J115 (the chockablock Flipping Properties Made Easy (despite the national housing downturn, Texas will post price gains in ’08)), Room J113 is painted penitentiary gray except for the door and door frame, both of which are a shade I’ve heard my mother refer to as burnt sienna. Across the hall in J112 is a class tantalizingly titled Unintended Consequences.

The course opens with a vague but provocative question: “Do you realize you are living through a time period of major, revolutionary change?”

It’s hard to pinpoint what change we’re talking about here. iPhones? Oil prices? The first African American presidential nominee?

“We’re living longer, spending more and saving less,” comes the grave response. “But the days of traditional employer-funded retirement plans are going fast.”

Restless legs and busy fingers begin to settle.

“Fact is, you are going to be responsible for your own retirement, and that’s scary. But it can be done.”

Don, our antediluvian instructor, is missing an ear and a sizable chunk of the right side of his head where an ear is supposed to be, as though he bore the brunt of a massive sledgehammer whack. Amazingly, his speech is unimpaired and actually quite pleasing; he has the sweet drawl of a Texan granddaddy. Don’s personal uniform consists of high waisted khakis, a black leather belt, substantial white K-Swiss sneakers and a short-sleeved forest green polo shirt with the words Adult Community Education embroidered in white thread above a tiny pocket. He is a retired air force officer and former professor of industrial psychology, including 12 years at the University of Puerto Rico. He would describe his own personal investment style as “ultra, ultra conservative.”

Don tells us we can become millionaires if we want. He is going to teach us the basic concepts, principles, research techniques and vocabulary we need to become millionaires and the rest is up to us.

A huge mastodon of a man enters J113, out of breath and sweating moderately. Summer has just officially started but it’s been in the upper 90s for weeks. He stuffs his enormous self into the tenth grade desk behind me despite twenty five alternative seating options available. His huffing rustles the back of my hair and I want to move, but more than that I want to seem equanimitous and polite so I stay put.

Don tells us that over the course of…the course, we will need to do some serious thinking about our living, and our lives. His reliable fumbling with English lends spice to an otherwise bland subject.

No answers are right or wrong, he continues. Maybe we want a Porsche. Maybe we want a skiing chalet in Colorado. Maybe we want to spoil the grandkids.

What we don’t want, he stresses, is to be a sailboat without a rudder.

“Here’s your Bible,” he says, tossing a Standard and Poor’s Security Owner’s Stock Guide on the tiny tablet of each small desk.

The man behind me’s breathing has slowed to normal.

Financially, romantically, occupationally – I’ve always been a sailboat without a rudder.

Before Don no one had ever put it quite that way, as such a bad thing. A thing not to be.

A laissez faire approach to life has served me well so far with a few notable exceptions, exceptions that have in all honesty propelled me here, to J113 and the woolly world of purposeful personal finance.

What do I what do I what do I want?

Retiring a millionaire sounds pretty good. I will aim for that.

In order to retire a millionaire at age 65, Don declares, you have to get cozy with the Rule of 72, a mental shortcut for estimating compound interest. Albert Einstein may or may not have called compound interest “one of the most powerful forces in the universe”. And while Einstein was a physicist not an economist you get the drift: compound interest is a big fucking deal. It’s how you accumulate wealth.

The Rule of 72 looks like this: Years to Double = 72 / Interest Rate and sounds like this: Money doubles every 8 years if it grows at at rate of around 9% per year.

So, in order to retire a millionaire at age 65, you must have the following rather huge amounts tucked away in “growth vehicles” (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, appreciating raw land, whatever) earning around 9% each year.

Stay with me.

And brace yourself:

Age 25 $31,250

Age 33 $62,500 (see? it doubled in 8 years)

Age 41 $125,000

Age 49 $250,000

Age 57 $500,000

This rudderless sailboat finds herself slightly behind schedule.

Don instructs us to fill out four trees’ worth of soul-sucking paperwork apparently lifted from various banks and brokerage houses: Financial Goals Worksheet, Income & Expenses Worksheet, Personal Net Worth Worksheet, Personal Risk Assessment Worksheet.

While we grapple with zeros and negatives and generally disappointing numbers, Don buoys our spirits. Most people with big houses and new cars every year are not wealthy, he lectures, pacing the length of the double whiteboards. They just have a high income. There’s a big difference between the two, he insists, though you can’t always tell in a consumer-oriented society like ours. Wealth is what you have in assets, not what you spend. Wealthy people make their assets beget assets.

Over the course of…the course, besides “Remember The Rule of 72″, we learn Don’s other favorite maxims: “Make Assets Beget Assets” and “Make An Agreement With Yourself” (to pay off the balance in full each month on any credit card, to save 10% of each paycheck, to pour savings into growth vehicles, to get a living will).

“Do you mean we should be saving 10% before taxes or after taxes?” the woman I suspect is a Russian bride asks.

“Yes,” Don responds.

She repeats the question louder, slower, taking his age in to account.

“I…said…yes,” Don bellows back.

The Russian bride cringes and the rest of us exchange impish grins. “Anything and everything you can,” he insists. “If you can’t do 10%, how much can you do? 1%? Whatever you can. As much as you can. Financial advisers will tell you this over and over. Do 10. 10 is the baseline. Try to get to 40. I want to see you get to 40!”

It’s fun to see Don show emotion just because it’s so rare; his emotion,
and fun, in this class.

Every now and again a chorus of laughter from one of the other rooms will echo off the cement
walls and a silent but palpable wistfulness pervades J113. The learning taking place in our room is
the sobering, serious kind that sucks while you’re doing it and rocks in retrospect.

The weeks go by.

Don teaches us to decode the NYSE composite list in Barron’s, the differences between common and preferred stock, how to read annual reports, questions to ask your broker. After the lexicon’s been broken down, retiring a millionaire seems so idiotically simple even the teenagers whose desks we’re borrowing could do it.

One night we come to class and he’s written a list of local brokers on the board. Nothing wrong with a discount broker like the ones online, Don says, but me, I like to know the person I’m giving my money to.

Time to put knowledge into action, he enthuses, then spends thirty minutes explaining warrants.

I am financially terrified.

During breaktime I hang around the classroom, hoping to get Don alone. After weeks of hangnail-picking research plus two Sundays on the living room floor with a calculator, I know who I want: mostly Pfizer
and Medtronic (which both happen to be on sale at the time of this writing) and (because I personally can tolerate some risk and I love the company) Continental Airlines. Pfizer’s an interesting case because it has a direct purchase plan, meaning you can cut out the broker altogether and just buy stock directly from the company itself with no enrollment fees.

“Don,” I begin, summoning my fledgling investor confidence, “I really want Continental.”

He shakes his dented head. “I wish you’d pick a different sector. Or buy Southwest.”

“But Continental’s nearly bottomed out,” I venture. “It’s so cheap.”

“They could go bankrupt,” he points out.

“The American government won’t let all its airlines go bankrupt,” I reason.

“Not all of them,” he concedes, “but which ones will survive?”

“I don’t know,” I say weakly. My classmates are filtering back into the room and making their way to their desks. “How do I know?”

Don purses his lips and shoves his hands into his khaki pockets. “Well, you’d have to watch closely and see how they respond to the fuel crisis. Watch how quickly and how deeply they cut costs. See if they get rid of the unions. That would be a good sign. Then they’d have to get rid of their retirement packages. And so on.”

“OK,” I whisper.

“It’s gamble-y,” he finishes.

A shadow falls across the tablet of my desk as the kodiak of a man behind me raises his hand. “Yeah, what about what everybody says, ‘buy low, sell high’?” he asks.

Don approaches the front row of adolescent furniture and plants himself there, crossing his heavily sun spotted arms. “Do you have the guts?” he suddenly shouts. The class is riveted. “Do you have the guts to buy when everyone’s selling? Then do it!Go ahead! Buy GM!”

The old adage works, he says, but most people don’t have the stomach for it.

My favorite of Don’s accidental neologisms typically follows a group illumination, like when he asked if we’d ever really thought about the fact all public utility companies in the United States are monopolies.

“Bonds in utility companies? Come on! Think they’re going out business any time soon? Know any house that doesn’t need a plug?”

Our class is full of copious note takers, me clearly in the frontrunning, though I’m writing about the class not about investing, but no one knows that and besides, when Don says this about municipal bonds everyone stops writing even me and looks up in wonder.

Taking in our expressions he casts his most charmingly confused English phrase upon us:

“Am I whipping your appetite yet? Huh?”

Don totally whips my appetite. I want bonds. Now. A lot of them. Why didn’t I even think about this shit before? Off course, rudderless sailboat.

As it turns out municipal bonds mature in like 5 years and since I’m not a U.S. citizen (and only Allah knows if I’ll ever be) I don’t have that kind of time. Instead I decide to contact the guy at Wachovia recommended by Don.

We meet in his office on my lunch break. We agree that stocks are the best option for my particular situation and he opens my account. I give him my money and he gives me a nice smile.

Don is not satisfied with this. All class every class he continues to pull the existential anxiety trigger. Now we know how to retire a millionaire. What about when we retire? What are we going to spend the fruits of our labor on? We must think ahead.

“You have to figure out what you want,” he commands from the front of the room, sometimes fixing his dour, deeply lined gaze on me. “Put some direction in your life. What do you want?”

I look out the classroom window to a) avoid Don’s beady squint and b) check if a metaphorical answer might be sitting around the football field.

Nope.

It’s likely the people who carve their goals and rewards in stone do achieve results faster and more fully than those of us who trawl the seas rudderlessly, happily visiting unexpected atolls. Me, I’m not convinced it’s necessary or even prudent to set in concrete what you want if you find yourself (as I do) in immigration limbo.

But there’s no denying how genuinely thrilling it is to go to bed knowing your money is working for you.

Hopefully your appetite is whipped, at least a little.

TNB does not endorse any of the financial information or advice in this post. Clearly, taking financial advice from an anonymous pony is capricious at best. Pay off your credit card and sign up for a class in your own community.

What’s the most unconventional way you’ve met a romantic partner? See how this compares.

2 a.m., local public channel:

SUBTEXT – THE DATING SHOW

The hostess, a clear-skinned brunette of +/- 24, whose wardrobe is ostensibly provided by the Urban Outfitters sale rack, appears to have eschewed formal on-camera training. It may be that she was one of few adventurous souls who responded to what was undoubtedly a Craigslist ad in search of local on-air personalities for a unique new “cross-media dating show” but in any case it will turn out that neither training nor talent are integral to the show’s popularity.

Brunette Hostess hangs out in the small left corner of the screen on a Scandinavian sofa and greets the 2 a.m. viewing audience colloquially, heavy on the mascara and sarcasm, getting down to the business of cross-media dating within 9 seconds. Her behavior is not consistent with drug or alcohol consumption but she doesn’t seem sober, either.

Brunette Hostess’s post postmodern job description is wondrously brief: saying many times the number viewers should send a text to, reading verbatim the texts received which appear onscreen, and outrageously bad attempts at witticisms.

Actually 4 duties, if looking mall-hot counts.

Participants in Subtext text the host-recited number, reply Yes to the Terms and Conditions, get a User ID and then their message with User ID appears on screen.

Representative sample text:

Yo ladies! 26 SWM here. Hit me up!

Even if, like me, you find texting mostly feeble, Subtext is conceptually transfixing.

And the number of participants (assuming all the texts were from legit breathing people in their homes or apartments or condos or trailers) – flabbergasting.

Subtext participants incur $0.99 charge from their carrier, which effectively makes a shot at true love or at least a semi-decent hookup the same going price as a Value Menu Item at Wendy’s.

It’s hard to tell if being on at 2 a.m. means the show’s core audience is drunk people who struck out at the bar or if public television is just random like that. But by the sheer volume and speed of texts coming across the TV screen, you’d have to be pretty drunk not to perceive your own potential visibility as nil. Or you’d need to strategize and flood the screen, sending multiple messages declaring your availability, in order to get noticed and garner some sort of response. To be successful either way, you must paw the keys super fast while also giving yourself time to read the screen for possible bait and scan for responses to your messages. Like trying to man 10 slot machines at one time.

Occasionally (maybe in an attempt to heighten visibility) a participant will hit on the hostess.

Hey Candice, u lookin hot 2nite girl luv ur hair

Candice acknowledges such flirtations with deflective phrasing that’s a stark throwback to the 1950′s “you sly dog you” style of rejection so obviously incongruent with the futuristic or at least incredibly temporal nature of Subtext it almost destroys the show’s credibility.

If the maintext of Subtext is that text-dating is the best (being easiest), newest medium to meet people, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for Candice to respond directly with, “Not interested, thanks” or “Let’s meet at the Starbucks on Guadalupe” or at minimum confess she has a serious boyfriend who she gives early Sunday morning blowjobs to after getting done at the station, a serious boyfriend who she loves making buckwheat pancakes for and going running around Town Lake with? Shouldn’t she affirm the medium’s legitimacy by participating in it, or candidly divulge her inability to participate due to a present off-screen romantic involvement (which does include high numbers of off-set texts)?

Having a host on Subtext comes off as archaic and unnecessary, not to mention irritating beyond belief in Candice’s case, but not having one would render the format lifeless, little more than televised classified ads arriving on the screen in real time. The hostess’s unspoken role is to infuse the show’s digital nature with reality potential.

But perhaps unbeknownst to them, it turns out the Subtexters’ shot-in-the-dark approach to mating isn’t so stupid.

Researchers cannot identify a single attribute that distinguishes couples who stay together from couples who break up.

The ones who stay together don’t make more or less money.

They are not rated as more or less attractive.

They don’t have more or less education.

They’re not more or less religious.

They don’t have better or worse communication skills.

They don’t have sex more or less often.

They don’t fight less.

They just stay together.

For some unknowable unquantifiable reason (sure, of course, it could be some as-yet-undiscovered triangulation of factors, but let’s not distract from what we do know for the moment).

This level of simplicity frightens me. I don’t want to believe I’d be reasonably happy now if I had just battened the hatches instead of jumping ship in certain relationships. Yet that’s what the evidence shows.

Who you pick matters less, in a way, than your singular dedication to not leaving them.

When we reduce the complexity of relationship success it compels us to begin a laborious return to the truth.

Pick someone out of a crowd.

Respond to a text on a crowded TV screen.

Go meet that person at the Starbucks on Guadalupe.

Maybe that’s the subtext of Subtext: here’s a bunch of somebodies. Pick one. Stay with them. Make it work. Hold on.

Text now!