Wedding Caterer

August 29, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

“Bob! Calm down. Take a deep breath. We are here doing the best we can to help you. It’s going to be fine.”

She was right. I needed to chill the fuck out. This was not the disaster I was imagining.  I needed to escape the confines of my perfectionist expectations and let my gracious volunteer helpers do their jobs. I began to breath normally as I allowed the relief of letting go wash over me.

“You’re right, Connie,” I replied after a moment. “I’m sorry for losing my cool. I really appreciate you and the others helping me with this. You’re right, it’s going just fine.”

Here I was, on the third day of my four-day holiday weekend, getting ready to feed about 150 people who were just outside in the large multi-purpose room of a Knights of Columbus hall. Up to this point, they had been snacking from common dishes of pretzels and peanuts that were set in the middle of each round table that sat eight people each. The newly-minted bride and groom were due to arrive at any moment, say some bashful words, then sit down to be fed along with the attendees.

I was not a caterer. I was not a chef. I was not even that much of a home cook at the time, to be honest. What the hell was I doing in charge of a wedding reception for this many people?

Being the Good Guy

About six weeks prior, my wife had been visiting the home of a family friend, whom she had known for years as she was growing up.  The family were members of the same close-knit church that we were also part of. The woman’s daughter, Amanda, had been a baby-sitter for our own children on numerous occasions over the past few years after we moved back to the mid-sized city of Anderson, in central Indiana. In the living room of the double-wide trailer home surrounded by someone else’s corn fields, Amanda had been close to tears as she spoke to my wife about her upcoming nuptials to a young man from Baltimore.

Amanda’s mother and father had been involved in a messy divorce a few years before, leaving her and her brother with their mom, the dogs, and little money. She didn’t let this situation keep her bubbly personality from shining through, however. Amanda was an angel. Great with our kids, and wonderful with everyone else, too. But bubbly personality didn’t go a long way in paying for things.

When my wife came home that evening, she spoke to me about Amanda’s plight. Her mom was busy working to pay the normal bills, and had little time to help with the wedding plans.  “She’s really worried about the reception,” my wife told me. “She doesn’t know what to do about the food.”

My own personality tends toward looking for ways to be helpful. I notice when strangers on the street look lost. Often, I will slow down and try to decide whether or not to assist another motorist who is experiencing a flat tire.  I feel a twinge of guilt if my decision is to keep walking or driving without stopping to give directions or help with the car jack. Sometimes I wonder about my motivations for this. Is it a messiah complex sans religious ardor? Or just plain nosiness in some cases?

I looked at my wife for a long minute without saying anything. Her eyes were looking back at me, expectantly. My head churned with the possibilities and logistics of offering to assist. “She’s getting married on Thanksgiving weekend, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes, she is,” came the reply. “Just like us. It’s the week of our anniversary.”

I remembered back to almost nine years before, when I had traveled from northern Virginia to this same town, relatives and a few friends in tow, to attend my own wedding. In somewhat the same situation monetarily. My bride-to-be had been completely in charge of planning our marriage soiree. She had worked hard to get a beautiful rental hall at a discount, and then persuaded a family friend, an industrial chef for the local school system,  to provide a lovely, plated dinner for over 200 guests at cost. Not that Helen needed persuading. This woman was a saint, if there ever was one.

“Tell Amanda not to worry about the reception dinner,” I found myself saying. “I’ll do it.”

Intelligence Gathering

Some of the thoughts that proceeded my gallant offer to help were: the Thanksgiving holiday would give me two full days off work to prepare for this undertaking; I knew other people who I could ask to help me (mutual friends of Amanda’s family as well); and… Amanda was special to our family, and I’d do whatever I could to assist.

Six weeks is not a lot of time to prepare, but I’m a professional procrastinator. It took me a full week to get myself over to Amanda’s home to sit down with her and her mom, Lorraine, and find out what type of plans and budget that they had. I had a few questions for them.

“How many people are you expecting?” was the obvious first question I had to have answered.

“Well,” Lorraine replied. “We invited 400.”

I closed my eyes and ordered myself not to react. “I see,” I responded. “Now, Amanda,” I continued, as I looked directly at the young bride-to-be. “You know that I love you, and everyone who knows you loves you as well. But getting 400 people to come to your wedding is probably a stretch. Most weddings I’ve been to at our congregation (local church) have had no more than 200 people, mine included. I’m honestly guessing you’ll have about 150 people who are actually able to make it.”

Amanda nodded with acceptance at this sage advice from a man of a whole twenty-nine years. Lorraine, however, objected to my judgement of the attendance situation. “Well, I don’t want anyone going hungry. We do have people coming from Maryland, too, you know.”

We spoke back and forth for a couple of minutes, discussing logistics of travel and whatnot, before compromising on a number of 300 people to feed.  Now time for my next question.

“What is your budget for food and drink?” I inquired.

Lorraine fielded this one as well. “Well, you don’t have to worry about the cake,” she said. “We have that covered already. We can also handle the punch bowl. And we aren’t serving any booze.”

That last part didn’t surprise me. The religion we were members of had strict views on the use of alcohol. While not completely prohibited, we were instructed often about the evils of intoxication, and it was HIGHLY recommended that we seriously consider whether or not to serve alcoholic beverages at gatherings (we didn’t have “parties”), especially wedding receptions. The leadership made it crystal clear that culpability for a guest overindulging would fall on the groom, as HE was head of his new family and also responsible for whatever happened at his event.

“Okay. So no cake, and no beverages. I’ll just be handling the food.” I agreed. “So how much do I have to work with?”

“We have $500,” came the guileless reply.

Somehow I managed to not spit out the iced tea I was drinking. I forced myself to remain still and not break eye contact. I breathed in slowly and simply said, “Okay.”

Oh!  Fuck ME!

How the hell was I supposed to prepare wedding reception food for $1.66/person? I asked my wife this not-quite-the-same question when I returned home that evening. She just looked at me with her eyes widened, shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, my god! What have I gotten myself into?” I moaned.

“You’ll figure something out,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”

I went to sleep that night thinking about it. I spent the next day at work thinking about it. I spent the following evening thinking about it. My dreams were of peanut butter sandwiches and boiled eggs. This wasn’t going to be a plated dinner. There wasn’t enough in the budget to make anything close to the baked chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans, and dinner rolls that were served at our reception.

Look What I Found!

I commiserated to a co-worker about what I had undertaken. She suggested that I go to the Gordon Food Service (GFS) store in town. They had wholesale food and prices. The city didn’t have a Costco or Sam’s Club, so this was the place to buy in bulk. So on the weekend, I headed over to Scatterfield Road on the west side of town to this white cinderblock-and-glass building with the big red awnings.

Inside, I was at first overwhelmed by the sizes of the food packages. One gallon plastic tubs of salad dressing sat beside five-gallon buckets of cooking oil and pickles. Looking back, I needn’t have been surprised, but I had just never seen food in containers of this size before. As I walked around the first corner, my eyes spotted a tin can of Starkist tuna that held 66 oz. of fish. This was over thirteen times the size I was used to buying at the Safeway store. Suddenly, the vision of the peanut butter sandwich dream popped into my head. An idea began to take shape.

I have always loved tuna fish salad sandwiches. My dad used to make them a lot for us when we were kids. Canned tuna was relatively inexpensive, and combined with chopped onions, celery, mayonnaise (my father hated Miracle Whip) and a bit of pickle relish, spread between two pieces of bread, he could feed three hungry boys for less than the cost of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Tuna sandwiches are usually by no means fancy. But if the crusts were removed, and the bread cut just so, tuna FINGER sandwiches could be considered almost elegant. I began to do some quick math in my head. (Three hundred people multiplied by 1.5 ounces of tuna per sandwich…) I might be able to make this work! But I knew that a wedding guests does not live on fish-stuffed bread alone. It would take more than pulling a Jesus Christ trick to keep Lorraine (and me, admittedly) from being mortified at the dinner.

By carefully looking at each product GFS offered -rejecting some outright, contemplating others-, and keeping the cost tally in my head and on a scrap of paper (why didn’t I bring a calculator?) I found a way to possibly do the impossible. I didn’t make any purchases that day, but went home to mull it over and come up with a concrete menu plan.

A Strategy Takes Shape

In the end, I chose to buy ten bags of frozen meatballs, ten cans of sauce (five each sweet-and-sour and BBQ), five large cans of tuna fish, a half-gallon of pickle relish, a gallon of mayonnaise, ten dozen eggs, and two gallon-sized tubs of ranch dressing. I had decided that buying fresh vegetables for the tuna salad and egg salad sandwiches (some people may not like tuna?) was probably best done at the regular supermarket. I had also elected to make a large cut-vegetable tray and serve it with ranch dressing. The bread would also not be purchased until the day before the wedding.

Also procured at the wholesale store were several disposable aluminum chafing dishes, along with the attendant stands and cans of Sterno jellied alcohol cooking fuel. A few large round serving trays, made either of aluminum or plastic on which to place the finished sandwiches and cut vegetables. I ended up buying these with my own money, as I intended to keep them after the wedding was over. Somehow I thought they would be very useful should I decide to host a Super Bowl party in the future.

Countdown: Thursday

Because I needed the food to be as fresh as possible when served, it made no sense to start any cooking or mixing until absolutely necessary. My refrigerator had been rearranged to store as much as possible, and I borrowed freezer space from my neighbor across the street. Most of the stores would be closed early for the Thanksgiving holiday, so it was pointless to try to buy anything anyway.  I also knew ahead of time that there was no way I could do all of the cooking and preparation myself, so I had asked a few volunteers from the church to help out. I had five women who were willing to assist. Our church forbade the celebration of Thanksgiving (or pretty much any other holiday), so Connie, Renee, Marilynn, and Sarah were all available . Most of them were older than me, wives and mothers, and had experience with cooking for their own families.

I said that there were five, even though I only mentioned four names so far. Thursday morning, I got a call from Helen, the same lady who had very graciously catered our wedding reception so many years before. She had heard what I was doing, and softly chided me for not asking her for help. She told me that her industrial kitchen she used for cooking and delivering meals to all of the schools with a Head-Start (preschool) program was available for me to use on Saturday morning, if I wanted.

Up until this point, I had worried about how I was going to heat ten aluminum pans of meatballs, cook and peel over sixty eggs, and mix huge bowls of tuna salad in a home kitchen. I had planned on divvying up the ingredients to the aforementioned ladies and asking them to each bake two meatball containers in their own kitchens. Logistics was going to be a nightmare, as they all lived scattered around the county.

With the generous offer of the commercial kitchen, my problems in this area were solved. I breathed a huge “thank you!” to the deity that I still believed in at the time. And I spoke an even bigger “THANK YOU!” to Helen over the phone. Afterwards, it was a matter of calling Connie, Renee, Marilynn and Sarah to ask them to meet me at Helen’s “office” Saturday morning.

No other work was done on Thursday. It was our own anniversary, so being relieved of the huge burden of where to cook, I spent the afternoon planning where to go to dinner with the missus. Then I remembered that it was Thanksgiving Day. Nothing was open. We ate at home and watched “The Lion King” on VHS with the kids.

Countdown: Friday

Up early Friday morning to check my shopping list and head to the grocery store. Fortunately, because it was Black Friday, anyone out spending money would be at the mall, sporting goods stores, or fashion outlets. Nobody wanted to think about food, having stuffed themselves to an uncomfortable state the day previous. I practically had the place to myself.

Because of the freshness issue, I still couldn’t really begin to do much with the food at this point. I would bring everything to Helen’s kitchen early the next morning, and then ask the ladies to cut, chop, pour, mix, etc. as we pulled together this culinary feat. I would have to satisfy myself with imagining the trays filled with carrot slices, celery sticks, broccoli and cauliflower florets, pickle spears, black and green olives, all adorned with a few radish roses that hopefully someone knew how to cut.

At the store, I bought several loaves of white bread, all of the previously listed vegetables, plus some onions for the tuna salad, and a bottle of yellow mustard. One improvement that I had personally made on my father’s tuna recipe was the addition of mustard to the mix. Because he hated the sweet tanginess of the bastard salad dressing cousin of mayonnaise, his tuna salad lacked a bit of zip. The mixture was already sweetened by the pickle relish. I added mustard to give it a tiny bit of zest.

Ever the worrywart, I made phone calls to the volunteers to make sure that they would still be on time the next morning. They politely hid their exasperation with me and assured me that they would arrive as scheduled.

Recalibrating Plans

With nothing to do, I just fretted and agonized over what would go wrong. What if, what if, what if ran through my head over and over. I was driving myself crazy. I decided that I needed to see the space where the reception was being held. I tried calling Lorraine, but no one was at home. Thinking that this might be a good sign, I headed over to the KofC hall. Sure enough, there was Lorraine and her sister putting up decorations.

The banquet hall was divided into two large rooms. One had a stage, and this was where the dining furniture was being set up. Large round tables surrounded by eight chairs each. I imagined them full of people, eating BBQ meatballs and finger sandwiches, perhaps a bit of vegetables and ranch dip on the side. Then, I imagined them sitting there with nothing, waiting, impatient. A chill ran through me.

I remembered other weddings I had attended. Sitting at the reception, hungry, bored, and irritable while the guests were waiting what seemed an eternity for the bridal party to take myriads of pictures back at the wedding ceremony venue. One thoughtful couple had broken tradition- the groom  not seeing the bride until her walk down the aisle- so that they could take most of the pictures before the wedding guests arrived. We didn’t have to wait to eat that afternoon. I knew that this was not to be the case tomorrow, however. Tomorrow’s guests were going to be hungry, bored, and irritable.

Making a quick decision, I added to my list of items to accomplish today. Another trip to GFS for some cheap plastic bowls and large bags of peanuts, pretzels, and potato chips which with to fill them. I might not be able to ward off the boredom, but at least I might temper the hunger and irritability a bit.

Before I left the hall, I spoke with Lorraine about my plan to set up the buffet in the second room. There were some long, rectangular tables that fit this purpose nicely, and even some white tablecloths to cover them. I noticed another room off to the side, and inquired as to its purpose. It turned out to be a food prep area, with a sink and a working refrigerator. I almost leapt with joy, because it was now possible to divide forces tomorrow morning.

My new plan included sending two of the volunteers to the banquet hall with the vegetables and other items that didn’t need to be cooked. They could set up the tables with the snacks, put together the chafing dish holders and prep the veggie trays. This was going to be much better. A wave of happiness washed over me as I imagined things going exactly to plan.

Ignition

Early Saturday morning I woke with a start. In my dream, I had been surrounded by what seemed like a galaxy of angry people dressed in tribal outfits and carrying rudimentary weapons. The were hungry, and looking right at me to take care of the issue. Behind me, there was a large cauldron of boiling water filled with cut vegetables, but no meat. The realization that if I did not quickly provide some, it would be provided in the form of ME.

Shaking off the dream, I quickly dressed, then began packing the trunk of my car  with the food. I first headed over to Helen’s kitchen to have her show me what I was able to use. Sarah and Marilynn were going to meet me there in an hour, while Connie and Renee would go to the banquet hall around two in the afternoon. The wedding was scheduled to begin at three, and it would most likely be 4:30 before the first guests would arrive at the KofC, ten miles away from the church. So with the amount of work they needed to do, there was no reason to send them too early.

Helen greeted me warmly at the entrance to her kitchen. She was a big woman with a bigger heart. To those who didn’t know her, she could seem a little gruff. Think Mabel “Madea” Simmons, from the Tyler Perry movies, just not as tall. She began to show me the large ovens where we would be heating the meatballs and sauce. A huge gas range was in the center of one wall. Next to it, beneath a stainless-steel prep table, were stacked some of the largest cooking pots I had ever encountered. Boiling five dozen eggs was going to be a lot less work than I had previously thought.

When the two volunteer ladies arrived, I had already got the ovens pre-heated and the water for the eggs was boiling. We cut open bags of meatballs and poured them into the aluminum trays. An industrial, table-mounted can opener made removing the lids from the sauce tins a breeze. Sticky sweet-and-sour sauce with visible chunks of bell pepper and pineapple soon covered half of the small orbs of processed beef, chicken, and pork. The other half were drenched in a thick, tangy, reddish-brown BBQ-flavored liquid. Aluminum lids were attached, and into the ovens they went.

Meanwhile, the eggs were just finishing their super-heated bath, and now needed to be drained and cooled so that we could begin the arduous process of peeling the shells. Helen had kindly stayed behind and had instructed me to pour some vinegar into the boiling water. This would help ease the shell removal operation when it became time.

As the eggs were being chilled, Sarah was tasked with mincing the onions and Marilyn tackled the celery. We kept making jokes about Sarah tears. I took the job of opening the five large cans of Star-Kist and draining off the liquid into the sink. The smell of onions and fish filled the air in the workspace. Mixed with the sulfur bouquet from the eggs, the whole place was redolent of a particularly bad fart.

It’s Always Something

Somewhere between mixing the tuna together with the mayonnaise, pickle relish, and chopped vegetables, and checking the temperature of the previously frozen meatballs, it struck me that Connie and Renee were not going to be able to unlock the door to the KofC without a key. I tried reaching Lorraine, but again, no answer at home. I knew that the mother of the bride was not going to be available to let the two ladies in at 2pm.  Besides, I needed to drop off the veggies and snacks so they could begin their work. How had I forgotten about this important aspect of the plan?

The big problem was that I didn’t have the key either. I was going to have to track Lorraine down to get it. I started to feel a knot growing in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t leave just yet, because I needed to finish making the egg salad and put the finishing touches on the tuna. For some reason, I felt that it had to be me to do this, not trusting the (probably more experienced) volunteers to take care of it.

Pressure did not have a good effect on me back then. My poise began to leave me, and I think I started to become a little more bossy than usual. When Helen looked strangely at me and asked me what in the world was I doing to the tuna as I squeezed almost an entire bottle of French’s mustard into the five-gallon bucket where I was making the salad, I was a bit snappy in my reply. “I know what I’m doing, Helen. This is MY recipe!” Not cowed in the least, but most likely recognizing that this was not my usual disposition, she backed off and sat back down and began to read. Marilyn and Sarah exchanged looks, but stayed silent.

I should have apologized right then and there, because I realized I had been wrong to speak that way. These women were taking time away from their own families or free time to help, because I had asked them to. Sure, they were doing it because they, too, knew and liked Amanda and Lorraine. But it was really to help me with this daunting task that I had undertaken. However, I let the stress of the situation control me.

Explaining that I was going to have to go to find the key and let Connie and Renee into the banquet hall, I asked if they would be able to finish on their own. Helen had allowed us to use some margarine tubs from her own stock to butter the bread before adding the salads. This would keep the moist tuna and egg salads from soaking through before the guests could eat them. We also ditched the crust removal. There was just not enough time, so fancy be damned. The ladies assured me that they could indeed handle the remainder of the work without me. Helen told me that she could transport all of the finished food to the venue in her van. I gratefully accepted her offer.

Bob Loses His Shit

Luckily, I was able to connect with Lorraine at the church, where she handed me the keys. She asked me how things were going, but was too distracted to listen to my reply. So I drove off to meet the other two enlistees.

Since I was now relieved of the burden of transport, I was able to help (hinder?) Connie and Renee with the veggie trays and set-up. I had also brought with me about half of the tuna salad and some bread to begin making some extra sandwiches. Which was a good thing, because I realized that I had not eaten anything all day myself. I made myself a tuna on white, poured some potato chips onto a plate, and washed all of it down with a Coke from the vending machine in the back.

With about 30 minutes before the first guests were expected to arrive, I put out the bowls of snacks on the tables. The chafing tray stands were already out, with the fuel cans ready to be lit. The bottom trays were partially filled with water that would be heated by the Sterno flames, and they would provide an even heat to the food trays once they were placed inside. Connie and Renee had done a beautiful job filling two large trays with cut vegetables, and we had placed covers over them to keep any errant flies from coming into contact with the food.

People began appearing sooner than I had expected. Not trickling in, either. It was like a wave. For some reason, I felt it was my responsibility to greet them and direct them to where they could hang their coats before pointing the way to the dining hall. The pretzels, potato chips, and peanuts did not last long. These people were hungry. While I was happy with my decision to have snacks at the tables beforehand, I started to think that I should have brought more.

At 5:00, the dining area was full, but no sign of Helen, Sarah, or Marilyn. More importantly, there was no sign of the food. The unease I was feeling increased with each passing minute. Where was she? Where were the meatballs and sandwiches? Would they arrive before the wedding party? Before Lorraine?

Not having any way to contact Helen to ask and therefore calm my agitation, I began to pace nervously in and out of the food prep area. At some point, I slammed my hand onto one of the kitchen tables and whisper-screamed, “Where IS she? She was supposed to be here by now! The wedding party is going to be here any min-”

Suddenly, my shoulders were grasped firmly by two foreign hands. I quickly looked up from my ground-gaze and saw myself facing with Connie. Not a big woman, but tall, she stood nearly eye-to-eye with me. “Bob!” she exclaimed. “Calm down! Take a breath. We are all here doing the best we can to help you. It’s going to be fine.”

I just looked at her. I was embarrassed. I had come unglued. Behind her, Renee met my eyes, then looked away. Taking a deep breath as instructed, I started to steady myself. “You’re right, Connie. I’m sorry for losing my cool. I really appreciate you all so much for helping me. It will be fine.”

Two minutes after my mini-meltdown, Helen came walking through the door, now dressed in more formal attire. “Your food is all out in the van. You are going to have to get it in here. I’m tired, and I’m going to go sit down.”

It had not occurred to me that Helen would want to clean up and change into nicer clothing to attend the wedding reception as a guest. I had been selfishly thinking only of what I needed to get done. “Yes, please, Helen. You’ve done more than enough, more than I could have ever asked. Thank you. And…I’m really sorry for earlier.”

She looked at me balefully for just a moment, then broke out into a beatific smile. “Honey, it’s okay. You know I love you.” She gave me a big hug. “Now, get out there and get that food!”

I quickly grabbed a couple of young men from the dining hall to assist me in bringing in the food. There were four chafing stations, so two BBQ and two sweet-and-sour meatball trays went onto the buffet table while the remaining six went into the food prep area, kept hot by being in insulated containers that Helen had produced from her kitchen. Renee and Connie quickly helped to tray up the sandwiches, which had been cut into triangles for the guests. Not quite as fancy as my original idea, but more elegant than whole squares.

Dinner is Served

Just as we put out the serving utensils for the buffet tables, Amanda and her new husband swept in with the rest of the party in tow. She looked lovely in her white gown. Lorraine walked through the door attired in a green dress. The mother of the bride walked over to me and inspected the cuisine. “Looks good,” she said. “I hope there’s enough.”

I assured her that we had plenty in reserve. The fact was, we suspended making sandwiches at one point, because we didn’t have enough room on the trays to stack any more. There was plenty of bread, margarine and tuna/egg salad left if we ran out.

Once a prayer was offered, the guest streamed in from the dining room. Each grabbed an eight-inch Chinette (fancy paper plate) from the stack and began filling it with the available comestibles. I stood behind the buffet table, trying not to look too proud. I bid Connie and Renee to go and sit with their families. I wasn’t going to be able to sit with mine. My wife and kids were fine- she had her mom, sister, and assorted nephews and nieces to help her.

It wasn’t long before the vegetable trays were picked clean, with only the cauliflower and broccoli remaining. I think that everyone got a little bit. I put out more meatballs as the first ones were emptied. The sandwiches seemed to be a hit as well, with guests coming back for seconds and complimenting me on the taste. However, they didn’t all disappear. There were still two layers left on the trays by the time people turned their attention to the cake.

But What About Your Doggy?

I never made it into the dining hall during the reception. Didn’t dance. Didn’t hear the groom give a thank you speech. In fact, I didn’t even eat. Instead, I found myself looking at all of the leftover food. I had put out more trays of meatballs, but they had barely been touched, and there were still more in the back. There were still plenty of sandwiches left, plus about a gallon-and-a-half each of non-breaded tuna and egg salad.

I began begging people to take food with them. But very few people were in the mood to do so. I didn’t have any to-go containers to facilitate them to bring leftovers home. I was able to send a couple of full trays of meatballs home with Lorraine and her son, and another two with some different locals. But I ended up having to toss away the sandwiches into the dumpster behind the building. It hurt me to do that. I wished that there was a homeless shelter that I could have donated to.

Personally, after it was over, I ended up taking home two containers of meatballs, the tuna and egg salads, and the remaining loaves of bread. Good news: don’t have to cook this week. Bad news: guess what’s for lunch and dinner every day for the rest of this week. But I do love me some tuna salad sandwiches, so it was okay, I guess.

Lessons Learned

This experience was both traumatic and triumphant for me. Without knowing exactly what I was getting into, I took on a titanic feat and prevailed in the end. This gave me the confidence to begin to invite other families over to our house for a home-cooked meal instead of ordering pizza delivery. This, in turn, forced me to improve my culinary skills. I began to really enjoy cooking, and also entertaining. Later, when we had larger spaces, I wouldn’t hesitate to invite as many as 25-30 people over for a gathering. But I’m pretty sure that doing another wedding reception is not in my future.

I also took away from this adventure a much better understanding of how to handle stress, and to trust other people to do what they’ve been asked to do. My employers over the years have generally fallen into two categories: micromanagers who drove me crazy by telling me every single step of my job and being critical when I didn’t do it their way; and those who told me what they wanted, gave me the tools I asked for, then got the hell out of my way and let me work. I want to be that kind of manager of people. And I want to never find myself getting so anxious over things beyond my control that I start to treat friends and helpers with unkindness.

And lastly, I have learned to trust my instincts and stick to my guns. After the bride and groom had gone off on their honeymoon, after I had cleaned up all of the trays and put everything in my car to take home, and when it was time to turn off the lights and lock the door, I ran into Lorraine, who was still there. “Quite the reception, from what I hear,” I told her.

“Yes, it turned out really nicely. But I’m glad this week is over,” she sighed.

“You and me both,” I quipped. “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, yes. Thank you so much for taking care of the food,” she responded. “Amanda and I really appreciate it. And all of the guests told me how good it was.”

“Thank you for saying that,” I said. “But I couldn’t have done it without help.” I went on to explain briefly how the five ladies had been indispensable in the effort. “By the way,” I continued. “How many people were there?”

“Oh, we did a count during the reception. We had one-hundred-and-fifty-three people. Big crowd.”

Epilogue

Sometime on a  winter evening in 2001, I was sitting by the living room window in our new home in Michigan, where we moved two years prior. It was snowing, and I was watching as it piled up softly on the bushes outside. The phone rang, and I answered it.

“Is this Bobby?” a young woman’s voice inquired.

“Yes, it is,” I replied. “Who is this?”

“This is Amanda. Used to be Amanda Essep. From Indiana?”

“Of course! How are you? Still in Baltimore?”

The conversation continued for a moment as we caught up on family and geographic particulars.

“Anyway,” she went on, “the reason I was calling is because some of my husbands relatives keep asking me about your tuna salad. They loved it at the reception and want to know your recipe.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hydrophobia

January 14, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

They looked innocuous enough. Simple handles that swung one way or another to allow the water to enter the machine. All I had to do was reach over and turn them 90 degrees counterclockwise. But terror gripped me. How was I going to get this done?

Easy Money?

At the time, I was  19 years old, broke, and living in the basement of the home of a family friend. I could have had a full-time job and been better off financially, but the religion which raised me encouraged us to live simple, work only part-time, and spend the majority of our time in spiritual pursuits. So, I worked roughly 100 hours a month as a construction laborer, and spent a bit more time than that engaged in knocking on doors preaching their brand of gospel, or preparing and attending services three times a week.

In northern Michigan, the winters can be brutal and the conditions make outdoor construction work difficult at best. Many contractors tend to slow down during those months, so I didn’t always have the same amount of work available. Even though my expenses were pretty low, I still needed to earn money to pay for my rent, gas, insurance, etc. So when a friend of a friend offered me a chance to make some extra money, I was not going to say no.

The friend of friend’s name was Arty. He had a cleaning business of sorts, and during the winters, some of his contracts included doing housekeeping for rental homes and cabins that were adjacent to the ski resorts. Tourists from the more southern regions of the upper Midwest (e.g., Detroit or Chicago) would come up for the weekends to hit the slopes of Nub’s Nob, Boyne Highlands, or Boyne Mountain. They tended to stay in rental homes (think AirBnB before AirBnB existed) that were close to the ski lodges. And someone needed to clean up in between guests.

The house that Arty took me to see was about 45 minutes away from where I was living. It was in the woods, had beautiful views of snow-covered forest, and an open floor plan which begged to be used for small parties. I remember it having only one bedroom, a tiny galley kitchen, and a single bathroom with tub, toilet and sink. There was also a small laundry/storage area with a washing machine and dryer.

My instructions were to start by stripping the bed, putting the used sheets and towels in the washing machine, then cleaning the countertops, emptying the dishwasher, and vacuuming the 1970’s-era wall-to-wall shag carpeting while the laundry was going. I would then have time to place the clean sheets and towels in the dryer while I finished windows and other needed chores. It should have taken about 90 minutes to complete everything. I don’t remember how much money I was paid for this weekly routine. I know that it was probably not much, but I was desperate, so I took the job.

When Arty was explaining quickly about how to use the washing machine, I neglected to tell him that I had ZERO experience using one. My mother had always done our laundry when I was growing up. And the friend of the family who I was staying with did not trust me to use hers, so she would just wash my clothes for me. I guess that was a perk, but it didn’t really help me in life. So, because Arty mistakenly thought that I knew what I was doing, he simply told me that I had to turn on the water valves before running the machine, then turn them off again when I was finished. And therein lay the problem.

The Closet Monster

When I was about five years old, I suffered a very traumatic (to me) experience. My aunt and uncle lived in a basement apartment, and once when we visited them, I went to use the toilet. Because the bathroom was situated in the basement, thus lower than the plumbing that ran to the septic tank, there was an ejector pump installed in the closet next to the sink that would turn on and force the wastewater up into the main drainage pipe. So when I flushed the toilet, the pump started up with a loud, unexpected THUD! and a WHOOSHing sound. It scared the living shit out of me. Had I not just finished emptying my bowels already, I think I would have crapped my pants.  I ran out into the living room, terrified. The adults thought it was pretty funny, and didn’t really take the time to explain to me what the noise was, show me how it worked, and tell me that there was nothing to fear.

I was a sensitive child, and I let my fears rule me. From that day forward, I refused to use the toilet in a strange place without someone going with me. When we went to a restaurant as a family, I would always make one of my younger brothers accompany me to the restroom. This continued probably until I was 11 or 12 years old, and then it just became too embarrassing. But the fear did not leave me. Even though I never once had that same experience again, I was still very uneasy about moving water. Pipes scared me. I didn’t like taking stairwells in tall buildings alone because I had to walk past the red-painted, 6″ fire mains that ran vertically and had big, scary valves attached. I didn’t like turning on and off the pump to the swimming pool that we had installed in our back yard. The infrequent times that mom’s washing machine became unbalanced and shuddered this way and that would freak me out.

Added Anxieties

I once read a story about a disaster in Louisiana that happened when I was 12 years old. Lake Peigneur, once a sportsman’s fishing paradise, was completely drained in a matter of hours because of a drilling accident. The water was sucked down into an existing mine underneath the lake, and the swirling vortex swallowed barges and boats down into the earth. The thought of that stayed with me, and I also became nervous about large bodies of water, even the swimming pool, especially at night if I was alone.

This dread stayed with me well into my adulthood. When I was in my 30’s I started a new job working at a paper mill. My first assignment was working in the basement of the building that housed the big papermaking machine. Down there was hot, noisy, and smelly. There were also scores of pumps and hundreds of pipes and valves- small ones, larger ones, and huge ones. My first thought was “No fucking way!” But I desperately needed the good money that the job offered, and I forced myself to remain calm and try to do the job. The longer I stayed and concentrated on my work, the fear eventually began to fade.

I cannot place all of the blame on my relatives for not handling the situation better back when I was five. As an adult, I probably would not have reacted much differently, I guess. No one realized how traumatic it was for me at the time. But I do believe that what we experience as children, without having the knowledge and perhaps the adult intervention to deal with events that affect us, has long-lasting effects, and can even be crippling. I wish that my parents had recognized that something was not right about their growing son having such an irrational fear of water and plumbing, and had tried to address the issue.

Unexpected Triggers

Last year, I went for a ride a bit north of my village to a reservoir/dam near Doi Saket in Thailand. It was dry season, so the reservoir was not brimming at the moment. I rode past the giant, sloping, concrete spillway without giving much thought to the potential power of all that water pent up behind it. I turned to the right down a road that I hoped would get me to the top banks of the reservoir. There was a canal to my left as I rode, and I noticed that the farther I went, the more turbulent the water in the sluice became. As I rounded a corner, I saw water gushing out at high pressure from the small gateway at the base of the hill. All of a sudden, the old fear came roaring back. My hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt a dreadful tingling in my spine and in my guts. I quickly turned my motorcycle around and rode back in the other direction, trying to calm my nerves. The fear is still there, just buried and mostly under control in my daily life.

Staring into the Abyss

So there I stood, at nineteen years of age, pondering the simple valves that controlled the flow of hot and cold water from the spigots to the washing machine hoses. I was afraid to touch them. I didn’t know what I should do. I needed the money. But not badly enough to face my fears.

So, for the next eight weeks of ski season, I went to the rental house. I vacuumed the carpet. I put away the dishes. I cleaned the mirrors, toilet, sink, and tub. I threw out the trash. And I simply brushed the hairs off of the pillows, sheets, and blankets onto the floor. I shook the towels and re-folded them before putting them away. For eight solid weeks, probably eight different sets of people slept on soiled sheets and used dirty towels. I hope Arty never found out.

The Return

January 6, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

 

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. They just get broken in the first week, and then I end up feeling like a failure and am not motivated to start over. But I do recognize the power that a specific date can have when making goals. And I have made a list of things that I want to accomplish this year. I haven’t set any concrete deadlines, simply that I will have achieved certain things in the coming year. One item on my list is to have written 100 new posts in my blog. Being that I published exactly four last year, and those all in three days in March, this may seem like a tall order. But it’s fewer than one every three days. I don’t have a set length for the posts, just have to write something. There really has been no issue with the number of words I can punch out on the keyboard. But the quality of my stories has to meet certain standards of my own making, so I spend lots of time editing or thinking of better ways to express myself.

So, very quickly, before the coffee shop closes down for the evening, a fast bit about the events of the last ten months:

In April, I began a second job teaching at a language school. When I returned to my first job in May, this made for a seven-day a week schedule which lasted way too long. I finally quit the government school right before Christmas. The money was nice, but I was killing myself and not doing what I came here for in the first place, namely exploring and learning about the culture.

I continued my relationship with a Chinese woman from Hong Kong who I refer to as “Mystery Woman” in my Facebook posts. I’ll write about her at length later on.

I was able to take one mini-vacation in southern Thailand in July, and a proper two-week holiday in Vietnam in October.

One of my best friends visited me in March, then moved out here in July. She’s doing great.

I wasted a ton of time on Facebook and Netflix.

The drowning pool has been empty and down for repairs since the end of September.

The ladies at the coffee shop are now politely eyeing me and encouraging me to make my exit. Catch you next post!

Whisper to a Scream

March 19, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

The school was practically a ghost town when I arrived this morning a little past 8am to punch the time clock. There were only three other motorcycles parked in the small lot behind the cafeteria, where usually there would be dozens. As I walked around the corner to the main building which houses the administration offices, I noticed that all of the doors to the Anuban (Kindergarten) classes were shuttered and locked. Normally at this time there would be myriads of children running around and playing, but there were none to be found. I saw exactly four other people during the time I parked my bike, walked to the time clock, and then returned to the parking lot to leave. Two of them were assistant teachers. whom I recognized. The others, a man and a woman, were unknown to me. They were up on the deck of the drowning pool, looking at the green-tinged water and taking note of something. I returned to my bike in silence, pausing only to watch as two of the school cats were locked in a stare-down with each other. The black one with the short, twisted Thai tail had his back arched as he glowered at the calico miracle momma cat who looked ready to rip his throat out. Over to my right, the white bitch lay in the sun, chewing at her scabby tail again. After about thirty seconds, one of the assistant teachers walked up behind me to her own motorcycle, her presence snapping the spell, and the two cats unlocked from their cold war and moved on. The mangy white bitch continued her self-grooming routine, unbothered.

Today is the first official day of the school break. Classes will not begin for the new term until May 7. But because the Thai government decrees that the schools must be open for 200 days out of the year, my school requires that the teachers continue to clock in every day until the end of March, even though there are no classes. The pointlessness of this demand is just one of the things that I have had to get used to as I deal with the bureaucracy here in my new, adopted home. I gave myself the concession of not wearing my teacher clothes to perform this ritual, instead donning a pair of blue jeans and a polo.

In a way, this may be a good thing for me. It forces me to get out of bed instead of sleeping the morning away. I’ve become quite lazy in the past few months. My last post was from the end of October, five months ago. So I have decided to take the time that I would normally be teaching classes to be productive. I’m outside by the swimming pool listening to The Icicle Works while sitting in a lounge chair with my computer and coffee, shaded by the bamboo umbrellas as the air around me rapidly warms with the still-rising sun. Five small children have just invaded my serenity and are busy splashing in the pool, unsupervised. Well, four of them, anyway. One boy is just sitting on the chair next to me, watching the others having fun in the water. Maybe he can’t swim. I have many stories to tell about my first year of teaching here in northern Thailand. It’s about time that I started writing them. Hopefully without getting water splashed on me.

 

There goes my goddamn peace and quiet

 

 

 

 

8-Ball

September 5, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I stared at the small mirror on which the little glassine bag and his casino rewards card rested. “Come on”, he said. “You know what to do.” And I suppose I did know what to do, but I was definitely not ready for this.

It was mid-September, 2016, and I was hosting a guy from Texas. Gaco had requested a stay on short notice as he was coming to Chicago. I was still recovering from a trip to New England for Labor Day weekend, had just finished hosting some people and events during the Chicago Couch Crash*, and also just got a new roommate.  I could have easily said “no”, because of everything else going on, but something about Gaco’s profile information and his nice request told me that it would be worth hosting him. I made arrangements to pick him up at a train station outside of the downtown area, and afterwards we met up with some new Filipina friends at the grand opening of a huge Filipino superstore that everyone had been going on about. The ladies had ordered food from inside, and we all sat out on the sidewalk eating interesting dishes and having a really fun conversation. Gaco didn’t know anybody there, and I only knew one of them briefly, but he made himself at home with the group.

The Filipinas were all tired from fighting the crowds at the store, and so they decided that they were going to check out early and go home instead of staying out to go dancing or karaoke. So Gaco and I headed back toward my place on the south side of Chicago. Before we got all the way to my home, however, I decided that we really owed it to ourselves to have a couple more beers. Reggie’s Music Joint and Rock Club on the corner of State and E. 21st had always been one of my favorite places to hang out and bring my couchsurfing guests. It was within walking distance to my apartment, which was convenient if heavy drinking was planned. Reggie’s boasted a very cool downstairs bar with live music, another soundstage for ticketed events, an amazing record store on the second level, and one of the coolest rooftop bars in the city. This place catered to everyone’s taste. Some nights there would be folks all dressed up in leather and chains for a heavy metal concert, other times it was hip/hop. The music joint bar bands ranged from country to 80’s, jazz to current pop. Everyone felt welcome at Reggie’s. It was probably the most integrated bar I ever saw in Chicago.

It can be difficult to find parking near Reggie’s on a summer weekend. I felt lucky to grab a spot on 21st across from the Chase Bank branch. It was just after 10pm, so I didn’t have to pay the meter, which was nice. After showing our ID’s at the door, we walked up to the rooftop bar and ordered a couple of beers. It was pretty crowded, and seating was scarce. I noticed a couple of vacant spots at one of the octagonal picnic-style tables that was otherwise occupied by a group of women and one guy. I sauntered over and asked if we might grab a seat, and they graciously welcomed us to join them. They turned out to be a group from a couple of local radio stations, including a couple of on-air dj’s who had been at the RiotFest concerts earlier in the day. Some of them were more drunk than the others, including the guy dj, who was making a total ass of himself. I trolled him for a bit until it got boring. Gaco headed back to the bar counter to get us a couple more beers, and I saw him over there talking to some old guy sitting on the barstool.

Since the radio personalities were pretty much finished with their night, they got up to go, leaving me there by myself. Gaco was still engaged in conversation with the dude, so I wandered over. This guy was tanked. His name was Jeff, and he was spouting some weird shit over and over, and the only reason it was funny to me was because he looked like what Jason Statham will be when he gets old and goes to pot. There was a girl sitting on the barstool next to us, and she was laughing at Jeff’s stupidity. As long as we were drinking, I didn’t care. It was a good time. The young lady’s name was Char – short for Charlene, and at some point she started to tell me about some personal stuff that was bothering her. I could see that she just needed to talk, so I guided her over to one of the covered picnic tables, as it had begun to sprinkle rain. She vented for a bit while Jeff continued to hold court at the bar. A few minutes later, Gaco walked over to us, looked at me and asked, “Do you want to go hang out on a boat?”

Now, you would think that someone with a bit of maturity and savvy would maybe ask a couple of questions at this point. Like perhaps, “Whose boat?”, or “Isn’t it a bit late (midnight) to be going out on a boat?”

The mature and savvy me had taken the night off, evidently, so my immediate response was more like, “HELL YEAH!”

It turned out to be old, fat, loud Jason Statham’s boat. I looked at Char and asked her if she was willing to join us. She hesitated a bit, perhaps due to maturity and savvy, and said that she lived in Humboldt Park, and would need to make sure she got home safely. Gallant that I am, I told her that I would keep her safe and promised to make sure she made it back.  So we were four.

Gaco, Char, Me, and Jeff at Reggie’s. (Come on..he kind of looks like a grumpy, old Jason Statham, right?)

The first order of business was to make sure that we continued to be well-lubricated. Reggie’s didn’t do carry-out beer, so we jumped into a cab that Jeff had hailed without our knowing, and headed off. Up State Street and around a corner was an establishment that would cater to our needs. I was volunteered to go in and pick up the beer. As I was waiting for the guy at the register to acknowledge my presence, I saw and smelled the food being prepared, and I just had to order some deep-fried onions, which made the rest of the cab ride to the marina very smelly. Jeff alluded to having party favors, which I understood to mean that he was in possession of some weed.

Jeff’s boat turned out to be a 45-foot sailcraft instead of the powerboat that I had imagined. The moon was very close to full, and because the sailboat was taking up the slip at the far end of the pier, we got to see an unobstructed view of the beautiful reflection on the calm waters of Lake Michigan. It was a soundless night, unsullied until all four of us decided that we needed to take a piss. The boat didn’t have a proper head, just a bucket, so the three boys stood at the end of the stern and whizzed into the lake, while Char squatted down on the edge of the pier next to the bow. Not a creature was stirring in any of the surrounding watercraft.

Down in the cabin, it was a bit cramped quarters. There wasn’t a lot of headroom, but as we sat down on the sleeping berths, it didn’t really seem to matter. The beer continued to flow, Jeff continued to be loud and boisterous, and Gaco continued to laugh at his antics. Old, fat Statham decided that I reminded him of Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra, and kept badgering me to sing, except he was asking for songs by other bands instead. I did my best to make him happy, but he’d usually interrupt me before I even got to the chorus lines.

About the time that I started wondering how my night ended up like this, Jeff half-stood up and said that it was time to get the party started. I was confused. Weren’t we already…? He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small envelope, then began bellowing for his mirror. I had no idea what he was talking about, until he grabbed a very small mirror – about four inches square -, plopped a little baggie and what looked like a credit card on top of the looking glass, and shoved it at me. “Here,” he brayed, “you cut it.” I just sat there and stared. “Come on,” he said. “You know what to do.”

Yeah, I’ve seen enough movies and television that I knew what was supposed to be done. But as most of you are already aware, I grew up rather sheltered. I didn’t have close friends in my childhood who used drugs of any kind. If asked, I couldn’t have told you which of my classmates sold or even used marijuana. I heard the terms “dime bag” and “roach” bandied about when I was in high school, but didn’t have a clue what they really were. That sheltered life continued into adulthood, as my family’s religion kept us separated from most other people on a social level. So I never was exposed to drugs or paraphernalia. I was 40 years old before I was even approached on the street with an offer to buy weed. It was only earlier in the summer of 2016 that I actually tried marijuana for the first time (I found that smoking it has little and less effect on me…edibles are a completely different story).

I continued to stare at the mirror, plastic card, and bag of cocaine for another couple of seconds, then just said, “I’d rather not.” Flabby, elderly Transporter-with-a-beard had this incredulous look on his face until all of a sudden, Gaco piped up. “I’ll do it!” he said. I watched as the mirror was passed to my right, and my couchsurfing guest began to empty the white powder onto the glass. He held the mirror with his left hand as he began to use the credit card (which turned out to be a rewards card from Horseshoe Casino in nearby Hammond, Indiana) to divide the pile of coke into four caterpillar-shaped lines  I didn’t even have to do the math. Four people, four servings.  Oh, shit.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “None for me tonight.” Gaco looked up at me in a mixture of balefulness and amusement. Now he had to start over. Which was probably not a bad idea, because his squiggly lines didn’t look like the expertly cut ones I’d seen Denzel snort up in “Flight.” Old man Statham shook his head. Char didn’t say a word. She just stared greedily at the little piles of powder. ‘Who ARE these people?’ I wondered, ‘and how did I end up on some strange guy’s sailboat at 1am watching a scene from “Blow”?’

As Gaco finished putting the final touches on the three more generous lines of nose candy, Jeff pulled out a for-real $100 bill, just like in the movies. He rolled it up tight, grabbed the mirror, and snorted up the first little seam of chalky-looking powder. He handed it over to Char, who with no hesitation, sucked the second line up into her right nostril. She wiped her nose with one hand, and gave the mirror to Gaco with the other. I watched in detached fascination as this guy I agreed to let sleep in my home hunched himself over the mirror, with the cylindrical Benjamin Franklin shoved up his sniffer. Holding the reflecting glass in his right hand, he guided the money straw with his left over the last line of cocaine as it disappeared.

Now what? It occurred to me that Jeff had probably been a combination of drunk and high the entire evening. But what effect was the narcotic going to have on Char and Gaco? I had promised the Texan that he could sleep on my couch for a couple of nights while he was in town. I had also guaranteed Char that I would make sure she got home safely. Was I the only responsible party here?

The party continued, with more clinking of beer cans, and Jeff’s boisterous antics, with Gaco egging him on. Char got a little more quiet. She had been asking if the group could go back up topside for some air. The sailboat captain had no intention of leaving his cabin, so I gently guided the girl up the steps to the stern deck. The stars were brilliant in the sky, and the lake serene. We sat there as she talked about her family and the business she worked for. She wanted to join a walk for suicide prevention, as it had struck close to home in the past. I wanted to know how she was so expert at snorting coke. She gave me a wan smile and said that she had been doing drugs since she was 13. I didn’t know what to say to that. She continued about some of the problems that she had experienced and I began to see a woman who was fighting a lot of demons. She moved closer to me, then eventually into my lap. There was a spider on the stern rail, right next to where her finger rested. I pointed it out, lest she be startled by it. Rather than pull her hand away, she pushed it closer to the spider, and allowed it to walk up her finger. I told her that I could never do that, as I suffer from arachnophobia, and she told me also feared spiders. The only reason she felt like she could do it was because she was high from the coke, and felt a bit euphoric. Meanwhile, Gaco and Jeff’s conversation had muted, and we discovered that they had passed out and gone to sleep. Jeff had crawled up into the forward compartment, and Gaco was on one of the sleeping berths on the starboard side aft.

Char and I talked and sat for a while longer, then dawn began to break. I knew that I should get some sleep, and she said that she was exhausted as well. We made our way down into the cabin, and took up sleeping positions on opposite sides of the sailboat. I set my alarm for 7, because I remembered that I had left my car in a paid parking zone that would start up at 8am. Chicago is notorious for handing out expensive parking tickets, and I had no desire to get hit with another. I was able to get a good hour of rest before my phone began to chime. I woke Gaco up and told him we had to go. I gently shook Char until she opened her eyes. I reminded her of my promise to get her home, but she just looked at me and said that she was going to stay. I asked if she was sure. None of us really knew anything about Jeff except what he had told us about having been a stockbroker whose wife had divorced him and blamed him for the death of their daughter. He had bought the boat with what remained of his share of the sale of their house during the divorce. Char nodded and said she’d be fine. Well, she was an adult, so I told her goodbye and left with Gaco in tow.

He and I walked back towards Grant Park in the downtown area so it would be easier to catch a cab back to Reggie’s and my car. He was in good spirits, and we were both hungry. I told him there was a very good soul food restaurant in my neighborhood, and we decided breakfast would be an excellent idea. As we drove down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive towards Peach’s cafe, I admitted to him that I had never been in the presence of people using cocaine before.  He said it was his first time too. I looked at him in disbelief. “Dude!” I said. “You snorted down that line like you were a pro!”

“No, I actually didn’t,” he replied.

“But I saw you! You moved the rolled-up bill over the coke and it was gone!”

“That’s what you saw,” Gaco said as he smiled. “I actually tilted the mirror a bit and pushed the cocaine onto the floor of the cabin as I went over it. It was dark in the cabin, and nobody noticed.”

“If you didn’t want to do the coke, why didn’t you just say so? I did.”

“Well, Jeff seemed so intent on sharing with us, and I didn’t want to be a dick and disappoint him,” he said with a wink.

As I thought about the expensive little pile of powder hitting the grubby floor of Jeff’s sailboat, and how crazy the night had been, I started laughing out loud. Gaco joined in, and we were soon both in tears.  I parked the car on 47th and King Drive. “Let’s go get some shrimp and grits!”

 

*Couch Crash:  Within the global couchsurfing community, there are members who set up special events in their respective cities and towns. Usually occurring over a weekend, these events are open by invitation to couchsurfing members across the globe. It’s a nice way to showcase your city and bring a bunch of cool people from around the world together for some food, drink, activities, and fellowship.

 

 

Don’t Move

September 4, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

Sitting completely still is not as much of a difficulty as I had imagined. If you told my mother that I said that, she would not believe a word. According to her, I was a very fidgety child, and neither of my brothers or I could be counted on to stay in place for more than a few seconds. “Rambunctious” was the term she applied to us, which was a nicer way of saying “unruly” or “very naughty”. At any rate, sitting quietly was apparently beyond my abilities when I was a child.

In my quest to experience life to the fullest, I look for new challenges wherever they appear. Obviously, some of them are more scary than others, and I’m not always ready to accept them. My fears of heights, spiders, and looking stupid continue to confront me at times. I have overcome them somewhat, however. I have stood in the glass boxes hanging out over the sidewalk along Wacker Drive from the 103rd floor of the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago. It only took me three attempts on different visits to the observation deck to actually make that step. I allow some small spiders to inhabit my shower here in Thailand. I made an agreement with them that if they stay put, don’t invade my space or start crawling around while I bathe, I’ll let them have their homes and their lives. The large Huntsman spiders have not signed an agreement, however, and they continue to die as soon as I see them. As far as my self-consciousness goes, I no longer have to be drunk to get up and sing karaoke. I will dance in public. I’m hoping to get an opportunity for open mic night or some improv classes.

As I’ve said before, when presented an opportunity to try something new, I will say “yes” unless there is a good reason to say “no”. (Morbid fear still is a good reason sometimes.) Last week, there was an invitation on a local Facebook page looking for a nude model for a drawing/painting class here in the area. More specifically, they were looking for a “fat, nude model”. I was a little torn. I have always been on the heavy side for my entire adult life. And I’ve always been self-conscious about that fact. I seldom like my photographs, as they remind me that I’m not the muscular, trim, Fabio as I imagine myself. But I was intrigued by the challenge of being completely vulnerable in front of a group of strangers, so I didn’t allow myself to ponder over the “fat” part of the request, and I made the decision to reply to the message right away. Within a few hours I received a message from the woman who ran the studio. She told me that they were excited to be able to work with a live model (apparently, it’s a bit difficult to find people here who are willing to pose sans clothing), and that she would call me on Thursday to confirm. They were looking for someone who was heavy – at least 80kg (I’m a bit over 100kg) – and could spend the day Saturday sitting in one position for periods of time while the artists sketched, or used watercolors and oil paint to render a copy of a less-than-perfect figure.

I spent the next two days wondering if she was going to call me and tell me that I was chosen, or was going to let me off the hook. Part of me was kind of hoping for the latter, but honestly, I really wanted to have the experience. I visited the studio’s Facebook page, where they were inviting artists to join them for the event with the “fat, nude model”. The photographs of the paintings they used to advertise this made me wonder if I was actually what they were looking for. The models in these paintings were morbidly obese. I now found myself wondering if they would be disappointed in me.  Maybe they would feel cheated that I wasn’t as big as they had hoped for.  I had to laugh at the irony of worrying about being fat enough for the artists. On Thursday, I got the call from Pui, the woman who ran the studio. She told me that she would pick me up at 8:30 near the North Gate in Chiang Mai, and take me to the studio 20km away from the city. I would be paid a minimum of 700baht (a little over $20US), provided with lunch and snacks, and given stretch breaks throughout the day. The modeling would begin about 10am, and finish at 4:30, after which I would be taken back to the city.

Saturday morning came early as I was out late the previous night. I got up and showered, dressed, and packed my bag. As I rode into town, I began to wonder why exactly I had agreed to do this. I pushed the negative thoughts out of my mind and just focused on money (which made me wonder if that’s what prostitutes do) and the fact that I would hopefully have a cool story to write. After eating a quick breakfast of khao man gai (chicken with rice), I walked to the meeting spot at the North Gate. Pui was there waiting for me, along with another woman who was one of the artists. She then said that the rest of the group was joining us, and sure enough, four more people walked up. Pui was driving her pickup truck, which meant that we had four in the cab, and three others reclining in the bed with the art supplies and groceries. As I greeted each one in turn, I tried to not think about the fact that these people were paying to have me strip off my clothes and let them render my figure to paper/canvas. It was a little bit weird for me. But everyone was nice, and they didn’t seem to treat me as the object that I felt like.

There were two guys in the group. Lorenzo, from Italy, was a tall, thin, young man with long hair and a beard. Gio, shorter and stockier, was very dark-skinned, and I thought he might have been from India, but his accent said different, and he told me that he was Australian (although his heritage is Indian). One young woman from the UK had brought along her mother. Mia, and her mom (whose name escapes me) are both involved in NGO work to help developing countries. Hannah, the remaining girl grew up in Chiang Mai. She said that she was half native, which explained her fluent Thai speech. It was an amiable group, and I found myself relaxed in their presence, pushing to the back of my mind the reason why I was there with them. As we drove further away from the city, and into the wilderness, I realized that there was no turning back at this point. I was committed.

Pui’s place was a family farm, with groves of mango, papaya, and banana trees growing on the foothills of the mountain.  Pretty remote, and very beautiful. As we were driving up the rutted little dirt lane, I started thinking that this would be a good place to hide bodies. She and her parents had a homestay (guesthouse) on the premises and she had also built an open-air art studio out of mud and timbers, all by herself. After some light refreshments, we trekked out over a couple of hills to the studio.

Ten o’clock came, and the group had their easels all set up and their pencils/brushes/palettes all arranged. Hannah was on the couch (cut out of an old bathtub) where I would be sitting, trying out different poses that would suit the artists and be comfortable for me. I settled on one that looked like I could easily maintain for a length of time, and then it was the big moment. I took a deep breath and walked around the corner to undress. Thankfully, Pui had provided me a towel in which to wrap myself while I was naked, but not yet posing. Ready-or-not, here I come. I stepped out into the main room, dropped my towel, and sat down in the pose.  Six people were looking at me intently, sizing me up, checking from different angles. Lorenzo asked if I would take off my glasses, which actually helped, because with my near-sightedness, I couldn’t really see their eyes. I picked a spot on the wall across from the couch on which to focus my attention. Hannah set a timer for 20 minutes, and then the work began.

As I sat there without a stitch on in front of these people, I began to take stock of my life thus far.  I watched the blurry shapes in my peripheral vision move slightly – looking at me, looking at the easel, back to me, back to the easel-, heard the strokes of the pencils against paper, brushes on canvas, and I thought of all of the other crazy things I’ve done in my 49 years. When I was four, I ran ahead of my father on the pier, began climbing the lighthouse structure, and promptly lost my grip and fell onto the rocks, garnering a nice concussion (and probably my acrophobia) in the process. As teenagers, my friends and I used to regularly take inner tubes down the Chipola River in Florida, floating past snakes and alligators sunning themselves on the riverbanks. I’ve given speeches and presentations in front of crowds of hundreds or thousands. I quit my steady job with a good income and sold everything to move across the world to a place unfamiliar to me in both customs and language. Right before I made that plunge, I visited BDSM dungeons, went to a party as an enslaved man, rode through the streets of Chicago naked with a bunch of other bare-assed people. I tried illicit substances for the first time in my life. I often buy airline tickets on a whim to destinations without having any plans. But posing in the nude was one of the nuttiest things I ever did. I tried to imagine what my former coworkers would think if they knew.

The chime on Hannah’s phone caught me by surprise.  Twenty minutes had gone by very quickly, and she asked if I needed a break. I told the group that I was good for another five minutes if they wanted. My ankle had started to ache from the position, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t tough it out for a bit longer. After the five minutes was up, I sat motionless while Hannah used strips of masking tape to mark the positions of my feet, body, and arm. I then grabbed a small piece of tape and placed it on my focus spot on the wall. I wrapped myself in the towel to walk around, as I felt it uncomfortable to be standing around talking while I was exposed. It was at this point, when I glanced at the sketches and rough outlines that the artists were doing, that I realized my mistake in choosing the pose in which I ended up. The pictures of me -relaxed on the couch, one foot in front of the other, one arm draped over the back, the other resting on my belly/leg with my hand over my thigh- looked like a pervert Netflix-and-chilling all by his lonesome. I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my God! That guy is sitting there pleasuring himself, and he’s ME!” Way too late to change the pose now.  (Fortunately, Hannah didn’t really like it either, so she took a creative liberty and moved my hand to my side instead of in my crotch area.) After about a five-minute break, I went back and sat down, posing for another 25 minutes.

We stopped for lunch at noon, and took a 90-minute break. Pui made some delicious pad thai, and I enjoyed a couple of helpings. I had put my clothes back on for this, of course, because eating naked is just too weird. After we returned to the studio, Mia began to play some 70’s music from her Spotify account. At first, it was amusing, because trying to be completely motionless while you are listening to “Stayin’ Alive”, “Play That Funky Music”, or anything by James Brown, is almost impossible. There was also an uncomfortable minute or two when some French musical duet came on. I couldn’t understand the words, but I definitely knew that the guy was trying to seduce the girl – and winning at it, too -because the moaning, heavy breathing, and grunting that was going on as well as the singing made it perfectly clear what was happening. I never stared at a point on a wall with more earnest focus in my life. I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t play that on purpose. Bitch. (Kidding!) But as much as I enjoyed the other tunes, they were problematic for me, because they gave me a sense of time. Now, sitting for 20 minutes was four songs, or maybe five. Or perhaps a sixth would begin, because we started in the middle of another. And because my back and my butt were really beginning to feel the strain of sitting (it wasn’t a cushy recliner, after all), I started to count songs and the time became my focus. Fortunately, Mia finished up her painting early, and decided she was too hot sitting in the studio. She packed up her materials and took her Blue-tooth speaker with her to the main house.

When 4:30 came, I was more than ready to quit. I put my shorts and t-shirt back on, grabbed the blanket and cushions, and headed back to the house with the remaining artists. We all enjoyed some more food and drinks. They had already asked me if this was my first time posing as a model. Lorenzo mentioned that many models have a very difficult time being completely still, and they were very impressed that I sat like a statue.  Pui asked if I would be interested in sitting for other studios in the future, because of the shortage of people willing to pose in the nude.  She also handed me an envelope containing 1,000baht, which was considerably more than I was promised. Additionally, they gave me one of the drawings. A very nice gesture, but I promise you, it’s not going up on my wall.

 

Would I pose in the nude again for the sake of art? I thought about it while I was sitting there, and the conclusion I came to was probably not. Being stationary in the same pose for that long got to be tiring. I wasn’t doing it because I needed the money. I wasn’t doing it because I knew that the artists needed me. The main reason I did it was because it was a new experience. Something that wasn’t necessarily on my bucket list, but came up and I was able to add it and cross it off. It was an interesting thing to do, and challenged my sensibilities. And it also provided me with something to write about.

Tied Up

July 24, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sitting there on the base of the throne chair, holding her clothing and jewelry, I felt self-conscious. I didn’t know exactly what my role was. The large room was dimly lit, and there were perhaps a dozen others there to witness what was taking place.  About ten feet in front of me, she spun, suspended from the ring in the ceiling and completely trussed up with rope. She cried out in a mixture of pleasure and pain every time he smacked her, hit her with the end of another braided strand, or viciously twisted one of her exposed nipples. Her eyes remained closed, except occasionally when – and I don’t know how she knew- she was facing me… she would open them and look right at me to see if I was still watching.

I had met Dana just that day, when I cut short a holiday weekend trip to Milwaukee. She had sent me a request to stay at my place through Couchsurfing, but because of my planned travel, I was not going to be in town when she wanted to come. I asked one of my friends if he was available, and he agreed to host her. I returned to Chicago the day after she arrived, and I joined her and Ted for an afternoon walking around the city. I found Dana to be outgoing and fun to be around.  We walked along the lake shore and shared stories of travel experiences. I don’t remember why it came up, but I told a story of the time I had been blindfolded, bound, and handcuffed in a woman’s apartment while on vacation to another city. It had been a truly amazing and beautiful experience, as I found myself completely helpless and under the woman’s control. As erotic as the situation was, it did not culminate in sex. I left the encounter with a new found interest in BDSM, but had never attempted to pursue it further.

We also talked about why Dana was traveling with so much luggage. I couldn’t understand why a woman needed that many bags. She said she had to bring many pairs of shoes, because sometimes she wanted to dress up, sometimes to dance, and other reasons. I remember rolling my eyes at that. Such a diva, this one.  Perhaps that was why Ted had privately asked me if I could take over hosting responsibilities when I got back. I agreed, and we eventually made our way back to his condo to collect her bags. It was at this point that Dana told us that she had made a reservation to go try something…different, and wanted to know if we would be interested. She had found a kink dungeon in Chicago online and wanted to check it out. I glanced over at Ted, who looked more than a little doubtful about it. But I have developed a habit of saying yes to new opportunities when there is not a good reason for me to say no.  So I turned to Dana and said, “Absolutely!”

Dana informed me that we would have to use fake names, because she heard that nobody at these places uses their real ones. So she had decided to go as “Akiko”. I played along and said I would introduce myself as “Bill”, and then we could go as a married couple who were very curious about learning the ins and outs of BDSM. Dana laughed at this and we had a good time fabricating our story. Ted just rolled his eyes and shook his head. Then the three of us went to dinner.

After dropping Ted back off at his place, Dana turned to me in the car and said, “I need to be honest with you. This is not my first time going to one of these things.”

“I thought it might not be,” I replied. “It’s okay. I don’t mind going with someone who knows what’s going on.”

“No,” she insisted. “You need to understand. I do this often. Professionally.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You’re telling me that you are a..”

“Yes,” she interjected. “I’m an expert dominatrix. That’s what I’m doing here in Chicago. I’ve been in hotels for the past two weeks. I’m staying with you because I wanted a break to visit the city without seeing clients.”

I still had not pulled the car from the curb at this point. I just looked at her. And then it dawned on me. “That’s not shoes in your luggage, is it?”

“No,” she giggled a little. “Those are filled with my tools and costumes. I didn’t know how to tell you earlier, because I didn’t know how you would take it. I only invited you tonight because I thought you would be okay with it after hearing your story about the woman who handcuffed you and how you liked that experience.”

“Then lucky for me that I told you about it,” I replied. “Because I’m really curious now.”

And then I drove us to an unmarked location on the north side of Chicago, where we parked and got out. Dana, now Akiko, told me on the way that she was going to this party to meet a guy who was an expert in kinbaku, Japanese rope bondage. She wanted to be tied up.  Oooookaaayy, then.

In the dark, we walked up to a nondescript building where a few people were standing around outside.  “Hi,” an older man greeted us. “My name is Bill.”

Well, there went MY name for the evening. Thinking quickly, I introduced myself as Rob. Akiko said hello, then walked straight up to a guy who looked like one of the bad guys from a Mad Max movie. He was well over six feet tall, wore leather everything, including fingerless gloves, and sported a bright blue mohawk on his otherwise shaved head. This dude looked fucking scary. And to put the cherry on top, his nom de guerre was “Death Rattle”. Fuck. Me.

However intimidating Death Rattle looked, he was actually a very personable guy. He was the kinbaku master that Akiko was there to meet. “Bill” bid us all go inside, where he said there was plenty of food and drink. And he wasn’t lying. Spread around the basement of this warehouse-type building was a buffet of roast meat, vegetable dishes, and desserts. There were coolers full of beer and liquor at the bar. There were a couple of couches to sit on, and a few chairs. Beyond that, the room really did fit the description of a dungeon. Wood walls instead of stone, perhaps, and no actual burning torches, but the lack of illumination gave the place an ominous atmosphere. There were interesting and curious-looking contraptions placed around. Akiko walked with me around the room pointing out the furnishings and instruments, while instructing me as to their use. Some of the items were obvious, such as the cross in the corner with the eyelets for securing the participants with rope or chain. The ring in the middle of the ceiling was of interest. It was anchored to a set of heavy crossbeams, and Akiko told me that was to allow it to support a great deal of weight. “For when I get suspended,” she said rather cheerfully. She then began to talk to Death Rattle some more about what they were going to do. I felt like an interloper at that point, so I took my bottle of Corona and wandered around the room. We had gotten there late, I think, because the other attendees seemed to have finished with whatever kinky things they had been doing, and were chilling out on the sofas with drinks. I didn’t really feel like approaching any of them. I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.

After conferring with Death Rattle for about five minutes, Akiko walked over to me, grabbed me by the arm, and led me back to the bar. “I need to drink before this happens,” she declared. So I grabbed a bottle of Don Julio and poured shots for the both of us. And then two more. And a third round. “I’m ready now,” she said, and waltzed over to the waiting henchman to be tied up. I followed, not sure what was expected of me.  I quickly found out as she rather nonchalantly lifted off the blue cotton dress she was wearing and handed it to me. She was wearing nothing else but a skimpy, lacy pair of black panties. There was a tall-backed armchair atop a pedestal facing the center of the room. I sat on the base of it, not knowing if it was proper for me to sit in the actual chair. A few other people walked over to observe. Death Rattle began to wrap rope around her torso and quickly fashioned a harness. She looked a little nervous. He then looped another rope up through the ring and began to attach it to the one that was tightly bound around her body. All of a sudden, Akiko called out to me to come over. Before she was hoisted up off the ground, she used her still-free hands to take off her necklace and earrings. “Keep my jewelry for me,” she pleaded. I walked back to the throne base and sat, dutifully holding her possessions.

I was not sure what I was supposed to be feeling. We came to this together, and the other participants at this kink party assumed that we were a couple. I did find myself attracted to her, but I had also just met her not twelve hours before. Should I be jealous that she was allowing another man to handle her body, smacking her naked butt with his hands or with the rope whip he held? When he grabbed her tit and pinched while he twisted, which made her shriek, did I have the right to covet his position? I watched him for a few seconds as she spun, dangling five feet off the ground. He didn’t show any expression of enjoyment. He didn’t look turned on. He looked like he was doing a job. As if this was just another day at work doing carpentry or laying bricks. Somehow, this was comforting. I returned my gaze to Akiko. Her eyes remained closed as she rotated, a grimace on her mouth as the ropes must have been cutting into her. But there was also a hint of a smile, and I could tell from that and the sounds she was making that she was enjoying the experience. The others standing around me were quietly observing as if this was a ritual.

When Death Rattle finally lowered Akiko to the floor and unbound her from the ropes, she walked over to me and smiled as she took her dress and jewelry. She didn’t put any of it on. She simply said, “I’m hungry, and I need to sit down.” I led her over to one of the couches where she fell into the cushions. I went over to fix her a plate – lamb chops and steak with some potatoes. She was unable to hold the plate and utensils herself, so like a parent with a child, I cut her meat and delivered it to her mouth on a fork. She was so exhausted that she nearly fell asleep chewing. Some of the others around us began to comment on how beautiful the scene had been, and to ask questions about how long we had been together, because we seemed like such a close couple. Akiko was in no shape to answer, so I fielded the questions as best I could, making up ambiguous lies and being as enigmatic as I knew how. (I’m actually not too bad at it) When she was finished eating, Akiko stood and dressed, and told me she was ready to go. It was after 1am when we left the dungeon that was hidden in plain sight on a Chicago street. I drove Dana home in silence and put her to bed.

For those of you who may be wondering, no, I did not sleep with Dana. There were many reasons why, and those reasons were both hers and mine. She had introduced me further to a world that I knew existed, but had very little practical education and I thanked her for it. She told me later that there was another fetish club in the city that was going to have an open house the following Sunday, and that I should attend with a date.  I did, and I was accompanied by a lovely young Russian woman, who surprised me when she agreed to go without me actually asking directly.

Perhaps I’ll write the details of that experience and others at a later date. But those who are into the fetish lifestyle walk among the rest of us, and you may never know who they are. I believe that many of us are more curious and open to it than we wish to admit. The trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey, however awful the prose, has brought the conversation more out into the open, so perhaps that is beginning to change. Like it or not, sexuality is an important part of our existence, and definitely worth exploring.

Pick a Topic, Any Topic

June 10, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I have so many things that I want to write about right now. So, I’m going to just throw some scattershot thoughts out there for a bit.

If you have ever wondered what became of all of the old Singer sewing machine frames and treadles, rest-assured. They are not occupying landfill space. They are all in southeast Asia, repurposed as table legs. Many of the treadles still work, so it’s kind of fun to rock them with your feet as you sit down eating your food or enjoying an iced coffee.

Speaking of food, I went to the market in my little village this morning. There is a large, open-air space that is covered with a tin roof on one edge of town. Each morning, vendors can be found selling fresh vegetables, herbs, and meat. The meat is about as fresh as you could hope for, the animals most likely having been slaughtered the night before. Next to the different cuts of meat that are still being butchered, there rests the head of the unfortunate pig. The chickens are either sold whole, or in pieces. Beef, fish, other fowl such as ducks are also available. I wandered through the stalls marveling at the abundance of fresh produce. Last week, I purchased a toaster oven, an electric pan, and a rice cooker, all second-hand. I then went to a small general store and bought other supplies for my “kitchen”, such as a knife, cutting boards, bowls, and spatulas. I realized that I have not cooked anything (hot water over instant ramen does NOT count) since early December of last year, and I really miss it. So, even though it will probably be more expensive for me to do so, I want to prepare some of my own food. But, walking through the market today, I didn’t buy anything. I realized that I am intimidated. While I recognize many of the ingredients available, I am stopped because I don’t have little jars of spices with names in English at home. I don’t know how to ask for anything without pointing. I don’t know what herb that is they are selling. And I just know that if I do buy meat and vegetables to make a dish, I’m likely to forget something and it’s not going to come out right, and then there’s the storage issues and I’m going to have to clean up without a proper sink and all kinds of other excuses… Basically, I’m being a coward.

On the bright side, I discovered a small café/food stall that offers khao kha moo, which is stewed pork leg over rice. It’s one of my favorite dishes over here in Thailand. It’s served with chopped, pickled cabbage and sliced boiled eggs. On the side you’ll find a savory and spicy red sauce to add. It’s absolutely delicious. I have had it in the city of Chiang Mai several times at the stall operated by a lady in a white cowboy hat who was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show. But I didn’t know where to find it in the village of San Kamphaeng, where I currently work and live. So, it was a nice find. I’m building a small collection of favorite places to eat khao soi, pad kapow, khao man gai tod, and pad thai.  I’m now almost confident enough to order these things without having to consult my pronunciation list, although I still screw up from time to time.

If I wish to become fluent in the Thai language, I’m going to have to dedicate time for lessons. I’m also going to have to lose my ego and just go ahead and start asking for help. I’m going to have to let myself make mistakes and have people helpfully correct me. In one way, it really helps me to be patient with my students, knowing how difficult it is to remember the words. These past couple of weeks I have been drilling my second-grade students in names of family relationships. “Father, mother, sister, brother”, etc. They have gotten those down pretty well, but are having more difficulty with “parents” and “children”. It’s repetition that is key, and the fact that I oftentimes cannot remember the Thai word for some object or food really helps me to empathize with my students. I’m possibly going to make flash cards for myself to practice remembering the words and proper pronunciation.

The ride into Chiang Mai from San Kamphaeng was beautiful. I am still in awe of Doi Suthep, the mountain on the west side of the city. The way that the clouds come rolling over the top of the peaks, shrouding them from view is still mesmerizing. I grew up and lived most of my life in flat parts of the country. While I did live for a year in the Mohonk mountain area of New York state, and then a few years in northern Virginia close to the Shenandoahs, I’m still taken aback when I see the majesty of the large, looming outcroppings. Chiang Mai area is surrounded by mountains, and the topography creates some interesting weather patterns. I hope that the weather isn’t the rainy variety when I get ready to ride back home later.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the Nimman Road area of Chiang Mai while I’m writing this. I rode into town to meet someone that I connected with on a certain dating website. She’s also American, a few (okay, several) years younger than me, and it’s simply a friendly meeting. I’m cool with that. From our online conversations, she seems to have a great sense of humor and is wickedly sarcastic. She just sent me a message to let me know she’s walking this way. (For the record, Danielle, if you get to read this, I checked my phone, not to see if you responded to my message, but to remind myself of your name.)

That’s all the time I have for this post. Still have lots more to talk about. If you have anything in particular you would like me to write about, let me know. I’ll try to work it into an upcoming story.

They Still Call Me Porny (Part Two)

May 27, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

As I mentioned previously, I have an addictive personality. Unfortunately, I’m not as addicted to writing as I am to other things that are less rewarding. It’s taken me a long time to force myself to sit down and tell more of this story.

Looking back, I sincerely regret the times that I sat in front of my desktop computer in the home office making conversations with people who weren’t actually in front of me while my kids asked me to come outside and play with them. That is time that I can never ever get back. That’s a very heavy realization. But those conversations were becoming my life, what I existed for.

The prevailing view of online dialogue has long been one of suspicion. The image of a sweaty, fat, bald guy wearing a grubby white wife-beater pretending to be a cute 15-year-old high school sophomore to gain the trust of other cute 15-year-old girls has always been the poster for “don’t talk to strangers on the Internet!” And to be fair, that has sometimes been exactly the truth. But my experience with chatrooms was not so much dealing with people who were posing, or pretending. The anonymity of the internet actually helps to create the opposite effect, in my opinion. Sure, people may lie about their age, their body shape, their occupations, but if you pay attention, the real them is what they are exposing. You see, when we are face to face with the “real” people in our lives, our parents, our spouses, co-workers, bosses, fellow worshippers, etc., we many times put on a mask or a facade. There are expectations of these other people that we must live up to. We often don’t really let those people see who we really are inside, because we fear the judgement that will follow. “What? You hate the sweater I bought for you?/ You don’t find me as attractive as that woman who is behind the counter?/ You think my idea for the office is stupid and you really don’t work as hard as you pretend to?/ You don’t really BELIEVE IN GOD???”

We constantly lie to those close to us with our actions and our dispositions. And we lie to ourselves in doing so. But, when in front of the computer screen where nobody really knows who we are, we are free to express our reality, our actual feelings and opinions. Because nobody there can hurt us with their judgement. If you don’t think this is true, try looking at online comments about race, politics, or other social issues, and tell me that those people who voice (text) some of the worst vitriolic statements would EVER say that out loud in front of real people who expect a certain standard of behavior and modicum. So real self-expression is buried deep until an opportunity for “masquerade” presents itself.

I was never able to talk freely about my thoughts and feelings to those around me. I had doubts about the religion that I was raised in and that all of my family and friends belonged to, but those had to be suppressed. I couldn’t speak out loud about how I was unhappy in my marriage, about my crush on a supervisor at work, or how much I liked Barry Manilow’s music. But when I was in the chat rooms, I could. I found people there who listened, and commented. Sometimes, the comments were not necessarily what I wanted to read, but I didn’t feel like I couldn’t express my feelings. And as usual, I also became a good listener to those who were trying to get things off their own chest in the chat room. Sure, sometimes I mocked them, but I would always do it gently, and usually make them laugh at their own fears. People in that room became my confidants, my sounding boards, my crying towels. One of them, who called herself Maggie_May (because she loved that Rod Stewart song), was a few years my senior, lived in western Canada, and was in a loveless marriage herself, became one of my best friends. I could tell Cindy (her real name, as she disclosed to me after a long time) just about anything that was on my mind. And she felt free to do the same. Sometimes we had private conversations outside of the room, but usually we just added our own honest comments to the running dialogue that was scrolling up our screens.

We all acknowledged what being in the chat room meant to us. Those friendships became real. I remember an occasion when one of the regulars disappeared from the room. Louise was an elderly grandmother with a very sharp sense of humor and one of the favorite personalities in CE1, the chat room that I frequented. After a few days, someone who was pretty close to Louise told us the sad news that the spritely older woman had died. One of her children had reached out to this person and told the complete stranger that his mother had passed, and that for some weird reason, Louise had wanted this group of anonymous people to know. We were able to get the email address that connected us to the family, and many of us wrote lengthy letters of condolence to them, telling them how much their mother/grandmother/auntie had meant to us. We told stories of how funny and caring she was, and how she had touched our lives. Those family members may have never known the awesome person that Louise revealed to us, but I’m certain that they were taken aback by the outpouring of support from this digital community.

The ability to express oneself freely and without fear of judgement by loved ones or peers can become addiction. We recognized that ourselves. There was a term that someone in the room coined for people who were in our “real” lives. We called them “shadowcasters”. Shadowcasters didn’t really understand us, not the real us. They only saw the person that we showed them. And because of that, we longed to retreat into the safety of CE1, where we were among friends.  One occurrence that I’ll never forget was when the husband of one of the chat room members entered CE1. His wife, who was a regular, had confessed to us that she had cheated on her husband with a man she met online in another chat room. And that she felt horrible about it. She either got caught, or admitted it to her husband, and he got very upset and tossed his wedding band down into the toilet and flushed it. She was destroyed by the thought of her marriage falling apart because of what she had done. So, after a couple of days of her absence from the room, her husband came in and identified himself. He wanted to know why. Why was his wife spending so much time in this ethereal place with people she didn’t really know? What was the attraction?

Many in the room were sympathetic towards the man. They tried to tell him how much his wife loved him and that she was terribly sorry about her actions. A few were hostile, blaming the guy for not paying attention to her so that she had do find solace elsewhere. I chose a different path. I reached out to the guy in a private message. My first goal was to try to distinguish if he was really who he said he was, and not just a troll (yes, they do exist). I paid close attention to his responses and I really got the feeling that he was torn up by what had happened. I could sense the anger and sadness and confusion pouring out of him. So for the next half-hour or so, I calmly had a discussion with him about the addiction that his wife was experiencing. I told him that it was none of my business whether he stayed with her or got a divorce, but that if he chose to stay, then he needed to understand just what kind of hold that chat rooms had over his wife. I explained about the acceptance, and the freedom to be, that the room offered. I spoke of my own struggles, how I often neglected my own family because I could not break free. I told him that he would have to be a support to his wife if she were to overcome this addiction, that he would have to be there for her, just like if she was recovering from enslavement to heroin, because the pull to come back would be there. This had become home for her. And she was going to miss it terribly. He was going to have to work hard to become her home again. After I finished, he didn’t tell me what he was going to do. I don’t think he had decided. But he thanked me for the insight into what I call “chat addiction”, and said he had no idea that it could be that powerful.

It wasn’t all somber and melancholy, of course. Much of the time we had great fun in CE1. We made jokes, satirized events and each other. One of the funniest games we played was “Buffalo Chat”.  Or maybe I just remember it fondly because I helped to invent it. I don’t remember the context, but someone made an offhand comment about “buffalo gals”, which was a line or name from some silly song that came from my dad’s era, I think. Someone else picked it up and turned it into “buffalo cops” or something. I tossed “buffalo” into another phrase, and then with some encouragement, all kinds of hell broke loose. There was “Ally McBuffalo”, “Little Buffalo on the Prairie”, “The Tale of Two Buffalo”, and just about anything else that someone’s imagination came up with. The scroll upwards on the screen was almost too fast to keep up reading, and I know that I was not the only one in literal tears of laughter as I read what my compatriots were inventing. Yes, looking at it in this paragraph, it looks stupid as hell. And it was. But it was very funny at the time, and every so often, if discussions in the room got too heated or funereal, I would drag someone into playing. Yes, there were always a few groans from some corners, but most people got into it and unleashed their creativity with “buffalo” for the next fifteen minutes or so until we ran out of ideas or just got tired of it.

I truly believe that part of my addiction was that I felt like a fixture in the room. As I said before, the fact that I was greeted by genuine “shouts” of joy when I would enter CE1, watching “Porny!!” scroll up the screen about 20 times in different fonts and colors was gratifying. I was important. I mattered. People cared about my presence.

Psychology Today defines addiction as follows:

Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocainenicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continuation of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health. People who have developed an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I broke free.

They Still Call Me Porny (Part One)

April 7, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I hate Facebook. Facebook is ruining my life. Not because of something Facebook did, or because of something someone posted on the site, but because I am an addict. You wonder why I don’t post to my blog on a regular basis? Facebook addiction. Why haven’t I seen more of Chiang Mai and the surrounding area? Facebook addiction. Sometimes I’m not as prepared for my teaching classes as I really should be. Why? Facebook addiction. Social media is a cool and wonderful thing, if kept in its place. But to so many of us with addictive personalities, it can be a cruel trap.

I have never used drugs, save the three times I tried marijuana (last year) and didn’t really care for its effects. I don’t drink much, except socially. There was a period of time when I was viewing a fair amount of pornography, but I don’t really need it or crave it. (Told you I was going to be brutally honest, didn’t I?) So you wouldn’t think that I would be considered to have an addictive personality, would you?

My relationship with social media began rather oddly, I think. I am never one to be current in the field of personal technology, either software, apps, or devices. I was one of the last people on earth to purchase a CD player back in the early 1990s. And then it took a long time after DVDs came out for me to come around to them. I actually remember being a little pissed at the video store for crowding out the VHS movies to make room for the newer, smaller, easier video format. But once I embraced those thin, round, shiny objects, then the rest of the world moved on to digital and streaming. I can’t keep up. My very first experience with email was a DOS-based system that was used internally at a large electronics and appliance distributor in the Midwest. I worked at the headquarters, and was given the opportunity to create an email account. I didn’t really see the need for it at first, but when I discovered that I could have almost real-time text-based conversations with other employees who were in remote locations, I was hooked. I loved having goofy conversations with complete strangers, and it made me look forward to going to work. Later, when I was at home, I discovered that I could play card games online with others who joined at random. And when I found the little tiny text box at the bottom of the Yahoo! Euchre page, where I could tell my partner, “GJP!”(Great Job, Partner!) or ask about where they were from, I was enthralled. After a while, one of my card-playing partners told me about chatrooms where they would hang out online and talk to people from around the world.

Now, I had heard of chatrooms. One of my coworkers came very close to losing his job because he kept coming in late for work. He was staying up all night talking to people that he didn’t even know in internet chatrooms. He told me about it, and I thought it was the stupidest thing I ever heard. Why on earth would anyone spend hours sitting at the computer having conversations with people they couldn’t even see? (You see, I had forgotten about my fun at the previous job with the internal email) So, I dismissed him as an idiot. But after the invitation from the card game partner, I decided to check it out. My first foray was into a chatroom labeled “The Hot Tub”. Why did I choose that particular “room”? Maybe it just sounded more exciting than “General News”, “Computer Hackers 1”, or “Politics and Business” rooms. I mean, in real life, wouldn’t you rather go to a hot tub?

Once in the room, I noticed two things: everyone went by a pseudonym, and nobody said anything to me. They were involved in several different conversations at once, and at first it was hard to keep up. It wasn’t until a comment was made to which I had something to add that I put my fingers to keys and pressed “enter.” And someone responded to my comment. And I was drawn into the conversation. I spent probably about an hour chatting away about nonsense and such, then turned it off and went to bed. Later, I found other rooms. “Trivia” was one of my favorites for a bit. Eventually, “Current Events 1” became my go-to chatroom. I had some great discussions in there, and it felt like the conversations were somewhat intellectual, though we did have episodes of silliness.

After becoming a regular in Current Events 1, or CE1, as we called it for short, I started to recognize and came to be familiar with several of the other entities in the room. I was able to get to know their personalities, recognize their fonts (everyone got to choose their own favorite font style, color, and size), and even pick up on their turns of phrase. We sometimes chatted about where we were from, our life experiences, and our hopes for the future. It started to be a real place to me, and I looked forward to joining the conversation on a daily basis.

I mentioned that everyone had a pseudonym. I did as well. I tried to be something that sounded cool, so I believe that my name was “Cerberus”, after the three-headed, snake-tailed dog who guarded the Hades side of the banks of the River Styx. I had been a huge fan of Greek mythology. Later on, I changed my name, as a joke, but then I found that I really liked it, and it was popular with the rest of the room’s “inhabitants”.  At the time, some enterprising web-cam operators had figured out how to create fake personalities that would enter the chatrooms with sexy names and start talking suggestively. They would then post a link to a web-cam site where “you can come see what I’m doing now!” I suppose that it got attention, and that it probably drew a certain part of the audience into clicking one the link so they could see what “Lick_My_Cherry19” was up to, but for most of us, they constituted a very annoying interruption to our discussions. We called them bots, because they, and other random advertising “personalities” were actually just robotic programs. So, in a moment of frivolity, I changed my ID to “porn_bot18”, and re-entered the room and began to make hilarious, suggestive comments. At first, the denizens of the room reacted as expected, they were hostile. But when I started to engage them in conversation, they were surprised, and then it became very funny. Eventually, they figured out it was me, and we all had a good laugh. But the name stuck. I was “porn_bot18” for the rest of my CE1 days. Not much later, my chat friends nicknamed me “Porny”, and that’s who I became.

I did from time to time adopt other ID’s for the room. Being that we discussed current events (sometimes, anyway), I found it fun to come into the room dressed up in “costume” for something that had happened in the news. Usually, my ID was sick and twisted. For example, after the tragic crash of the AirFrance Concorde when one of its tires blew out and caught fire on takeoff, I thought it was too good not to tie it to the other unfolding issue surrounding rubber at the time, namely the Firestone/Ford Explorer debacle. (Look them up if you don’t know, I already have the finger cramps) Hence, I chose “Concorde_Was_Wearing_Firestones” for the week. Yes, it raised eyebrows, which is what I wanted. Yes, some people complained that I was making light of tragedy, which I most certainly was. Yes, it offended some, but those weren’t my favorite people anyway. My friends found it very funny. So I continued to look for ways to garner the attention. Subsequently, I chose names such as “Jethro’s_Turn_to_Drive_the_Sub” (referencing the deadly USS Greenville/Ehime Maru collision), and one that I’m not particularly proud of, but I went with anyway-“Bathing_the_Kids_in_Texas” (an admittedly heartless spoof on Andrea Yates’ postpartum depression-fueled murder of her five children). There were many others, but I cannot recall them at the moment. Back then, I thought I’d never forget. Should have kept the list. For Easter, many of the chatroom regulars would choose a special name, like “Chocolate_Bunny” or “Painted_Eggs” or some nonsense. I chose to gain attention by offending. My Easter season ID was “Giving_Up_Altar_Boys_for_Lent”. Probably that was one of the most controversial names I chose. Some of my friends who were Catholic were not as amused as I had hoped.

I began to spend more and more time in CE1. I started to choose time with my internet friends over time with my family. It was truly an addiction. Whenever I would enter the chatroom, there would be a chorus of “PORNY!!!” or “Pornbot!” It was eerily similar to when the inhabitants of the fictional television bar “Cheers” would yell, “NORM!!” whenever George Wendt’s iconic character would walk through the doors. I felt important. I felt wanted. I felt a part of something. I felt home.

I have much more to say about my chatroom and social media addiction, but I will have to save it for later posts. I hope all of you have a great day/evening/weekend.