Birthday Blues

Thursday, September 20, 2018 is my 51st birthday.

I mention this not because I want you to post a semi-automatic “Happy Birthday’ message to me on Facebook or Twitter. In actual point of fact, I’ve marked my birthdate “hidden” on Facebook and on Twitter… because I’m a total grouch about my birthday.

I have a hereditary sense of self-pity where my birthday is involved. My father, who clearly suffered from undiagnosed depression much of his life, tended to spend most of his birthdays in bed in a darkened room. Some Father’s Days as well. Birthdays and Father’s Days didn’t always start that way, but in my recollection more often than not Dad would get his nose out of joint at not receiving sufficient respect on his day of days… and next thing you know he was sulking in the bedroom. Head under pillow, as it were, lights out, curtains drawn.

I don’t exactly do that. But I certainly don’t look forward to my birthday.

When I was a kid, the general rule was that you’d get up in the morning on your birthday and there’d be a heap of wrapped presents on the dining table waiting for you. Then, that night, everyone would go out to a restaurant of your choosing. In principle, that sounds good, right? What really sucked about birthdays in my family was that in all other respects, your birthday would be just as rotten as any other day.

My father was pretty abusive. Emotionally and physically. Mom enabled him in many respects. She didn’t do the bullying, but she didn’t stop him from doing it. Dad never made the connection between it being my birthday and maybe letting up on the abuse for a while. The irony just drove me up the wall. Irony in the sense of “Happy Birthday” being said, but “you pathetic loser” being the meaning. From what I understood, birthdays weren’t supposed to be like that.

It definitely led one to develop a nice strong sense of self-pity. That, and Dad’s absolute refusal to ever compliment or say anything nice to any of us kids ever. I wound up as the all-time Grand Champion of low self esteem.

What really iced the cake, so to speak, was my 17th birthday. I got up in the morning, went out to the dining room to see what gifts were waiting for me, and there was nothing there. Not a card, not a package, not anything. I wondered if perhaps my parents were planning a surprise, like having a car waiting for me when I came home from school. I doubted that — my older sisters had never gotten anything like that for their 17th birthdays. But I didn’t want to say anything and have them go “impatient, aren’t you?” So I went to school having said nothing. Some kids at school remembered my birthday, which was nice, but still, I spent the day going “WTF?” about my family. That night, once again, nothing. No one said “so, where do you want to go eat?” No one said “you’re probably wondering where your presents are?” Nothing.

Not much I could do. If my family cared so little that they forgot my birthday, going hat in hand and saying “pretty please can I have a birthday celebration please” would just have been pathetic.

So I said nothing. For a while I wondered if at some point they were going to look at the calendar and think “Hey, wait a second…” Given that my mom’s birthday was on September 4 and mine was on September 20, they were usually thought of as “the September birthdays” (we had the three March birthdays and then my brother’s was in July). Mom’s certainly hadn’t been forgotten… so why had mine? Anyway, day after day went by and they never did remember.

So finally, about a month after my 17th birthday, I went to my mom and asked a contrived question: “Do I need to register for Selective Service within 30 days of my 17th birthday or 18th?” She said “18th, I think” and I said “OK” and wandered off. A few minutes later, the shoe dropped. Mom came and found me and asked what they’d given me for my birthday. Finally, I had the opportunity to really revel in the absolute nadir of self-pity. Of course, I acted like it was no big thing. Shrugging, I said “Nothing, Mom. I guess you forgot.”

She went off and called Dad at work to let him know. They decided between them that since they’d forgotten it at the time and for a solid month thereafter, there wasn’t really any point pretending to care and having a belated celebration. They apologized and that was it.

Isn’t it absurd that I still recall it so vividly?

When I went off to college, and then grad school, and then went off into my adult life, birthday celebrations more or less went by the wayside. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could ask your friends to do for you and what friends I had never took the initiative. And thank God, I was never so wretched as to buy myself a birthday cake and sing Happy Birthday to myself. At least I had that much self respect.

Then I got a steady girlfriend and got married. A chance for a new start, birthday-wise, right?


Carole, bless her heart, had a mother who managed to even exceed my parents’ birthday management skills. She tended to shop at Big Lots a lot and would come home with random crap that was on sale. Then, when it was Carole’s birthday, her mom would remember at the last minute and go up to the room where the “crap bought at Big Lots” box was kept and would arbitrarily grab a few items. Really haphazardly-chosen stuff. Embroidered pot-holders and so on. So, that was where Carole learned about gift-giving.

For the first few Christmases and birthdays we were together, Carole would go to the local bookstore and buy a few remaindered books and then would wander into a clothing store and buy something off the clearance table. Usually whatever she bought didn’t fit and the books had been remaindered for a reason, but at least she tried. Kinda.

On the other hand, I was expected to make up for decades of awful birthday gifts from her mom… and I wound up buying a metric ton of gifts for her each time, in hopes that one of them would really knock the ball out of the ballpark. Each year I had to do more and more because she’d look so disappointed if she didn’t get something really awesome.

And that wound up being how things stayed. I’d get stuff off the $5 table in the front of the Wal-Mart and Carole would get an embarrassment of riches. Eventually I told her to just stop. I’d rather get nothing than get something that so patently shouted “I DON’T CARE”.

The only time it really hurt was when I turned 50. I’d turned 40 while on a business trip to Albuquerque and when I got home a few days later we went out to eat, but that was it.

On my 50th, though, I was really hoping for things to be different. I knew there was no way Carole would remember to do anything unless I reminded her, because in addition to having learned awful gift-giving at her mother’s knee, she’s also the queen of procrastination. So I politely reminded her every couple of weeks for months leading up to my birthday. She understood that I really wanted, for once in our time together, the kind of birthday other people get. She’d say “I know, I know, you can stop reminding me.”

You already know what happened.

I turned 50.

I got: a cake.

So basically, I hate birthdays. Mine, anyway. I’m more than happy to celebrate others’. I still get Carole lots of nice stuff and try to make her day of days really special. But I’ve given up on my own ever amounting to anything.

And as I type this, I realize — as far as birthdays are concerned, I’ve turned into my father.


21st Wedding Anniversary

Carole and I tied the knot on Saturday, September 13, 1997. Thursday of this week is the 21st anniversary of that date. We are still married despite being two of the most contrary, argumentative jackasses who ever fell off the turnip truck.

Marriage has not worked out the way I thought it would. I imagine marriage usually doesn’t. For anyone. Expectations are high, and reality’s a bitch.

For example, I had hoped we’d have kids. We never did, and it’s definitely too late now. I’m about to be 51 (we got married one week before my 30th birthday), and Carole’s coming up on 48. Even if we somehow could get Carole pregnant, I sure as heck don’t want to be that 70-year-old guy at my son or daughter’s high school graduation. That’s just weird.

Why didn’t we have kids?

We never got around to having kids because:

  1. I travel for work. A lot. It wouldn’t be fair to stick Carole with 95% of the work of raising a child. Yes, I could theoretically have changed jobs, but for a lot of reasons, that probably wouldn’t have been as easy or wise as it might sound.
  2. When Carole’s employed, it’s often in an accounting-type position, and even if you’re not working for a CPA firm doing taxes, accountants tend to work long hours. Could Carole have stopped working and become a stay-at-home mom? Hypothetically, yes — but trust me when I say that wouldn’t have been a good fit for her, personality-wise.
  3. We’re both assholes. And we both suffer from depression. And Carole has some form of anxiety disorder. And we’ve both got anger management problems. Do you really want to see what a combination of our genes would be like?

We have had a lot of good times and a lot of bad times.

I can say with some truth that when neither of us is sulking or angry or put out about something, we’re pretty good friends to one another. And that’s something that a lot of married couples can’t say, frankly. (Although a lot can. I’m not saying we’re unique.) And I’m glad about that.

I wish we hadn’t had as many fights as we had. I was told that the key to a successful marriage is “don’t go to bed angry”. Well, one or both of us has gone to bed angry quite a few nights over the years. We sort of specialize in it.

It may be partly due to running a marriage via phone call and text message. It’s hard to know when would be a good time to call or text — I seem to have an uncanny knack for calling just when Carole is really stressed out about something or just going to the bathroom or when she’s in the middle of a TV show or … a lot of things.

And it may also be learned behavior — my parents had loud shouted arguments all the damn time when I was a kid. Carole’s parents didn’t shout as much as mine did, but according to her, sniping and scoring points through bitchy, catty comments directed at one’s family members was considered absolutely normal.

We do care about each other. We just suck at showing it. Most of the time, anyway.

Financially, we’re in pretty good shape. We’re both working, our only debt right now is our mortgage and the loan for the solar panels on the roof, and we’re easily able to make our monthly loan payments. We’re putting a decent amount of money aside for retirement, and we’re both in moderately good health, other than my off-the-charts high blood pressure. We don’t lack for anything and we’re able to afford some of the nice things in life, like our Baltic Sea cruise back in August or the hot tub we just had installed out front of the house.

Really, we don’t have a lot of what you could call problems. Other than the ones we manufacture for ourselves, and I doubt we’ll ever break the habit of doing that.

I love Carole, and I think she loves me. And somehow or another, we’ve outlasted a lot of marriages that outwardly seemed to have more going for them than ours does. If you want your marriage to last, you’ve got to be willing to work hard on occasion, and I guess we’ve cared enough to put in the effort.

The odds may have been against our marriage lasting 21 years, but sometimes, odd couples do work out.

You Can Love Whoever The Hell You Want

Carole and I marched in the 2018 Burlington, Vermont Pride parade today. We’re allies of those in the LGBTQ movement and supporters of the fundamental right of all persons to love whomever the hell they want. We’re happy and proud that droves of Vermonters came out to cheer and support and to march in the parade itself.

We marched with a group of parishioners and ministers from local United Church of Christ (Congregationalist) churches, including the minister from our local church here in Richmond, Vermont, Katelyn Macrae.

Love is love. If you have time to spend telling other people who they can love, you need to take a hard look at where your life is going.

The Most Russian Thing Ever

Carole and I went on a cruise of Baltic countries between August 18 and August 27, starting in Copenhagen, Denmark and stopping off in Berlin, Tallinn, St Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm. We took lots of photos, which we shall in due course inflict on you.

But I wanted to share a quick little anecdote while it’s fresh in my mind:

Carole and I went on a small-group bus tour of each city we stopped in. And in each city (except Stockholm) the bus tour included a hot lunch in a local restaurant. We got alcohol with every meal — sparkling wine several times over, beer in Germany and Estonia, and vodka in Russia. Our first Russian meal was at a elegant little restaurant called “Troika” (see photo above) the legendary home of an evening cabaret that we didn’t get to stick around and see. They served us vodka in little shot glasses along with plates of Russian bread, salad, meat, potatoes, and dessert. (We ate a LOT of potatoes in Europe. Every hot meal included them.)

Some of our party didn’t want their vodka — not everyone follows the Russian model of banging down shots of vodka straight with every meal. But I was game, and reached out to take mine, and promptly knocked it over. (The tables were pretty crowded and all our utensils and glasses and things were packed in pretty tightly.)

Everyone around me gasped, automatically assuming that spilling one’s vodka was a major Russian faux pas. But I noted that the tablecloth was well-nigh impermeable and far from soaking through, the vodka was sitting there in a compact puddle, minding its own business. So I grabbed a piece of bread, sponged up as much vodka as it would hold, stuffed it in my maw, grabbed another piece of bread, and repeated the process.

So there I was, frantically soaking up spilled vodka right off a tablecloth with a hunk of bread. I looked up at Carole and the other tourists sharing our table and said “Um, this is, like, the most Russian thing ever, isn’t it?”

Random Memories: Getting Married

When Carole and I got married back in 1997, we started getting tons of phone spam from people wanting to sell us stuff. Apparently Durham County, NC routinely sold a list of newlywed couples to marketers (some of them referenced this fact) and we were the unwitting beneficiaries. So we changed our phone number to avoid getting eight to ten calls EVERY EVENING from people trying to sell us on stuff that newlywed couples apparently were deemed to need (aluminum siding, baby supplies, you name it).

And the phone company happily gave us the number of a MAJOR, um, “credit risk” — let’s call her “Tammy” — who had been using the number up until a week or so previously. We started getting dozens of calls from her creditors daily, way into the evening, sometimes in the middle of the night.

We also started getting calls from “Tammy’s” mother, who clearly didn’t believe that we didn’t know where her daughter was or that her daughter was in any way doing shady stuff that would have Guido and Nunzio and every other debt collector in a five-state radius out looking for her.

I’d always heard that phone companies didn’t reissue phone numbers for X months, but clearly that wasn’t the case here. Nice fresh debts, references to conversations “last week”, you name it. It was useless trying to tell people that we were not the “Tammy” they were looking for.

So we had to change our number again. We asked very very politely for a number that hadn’t been in use for at least six months and this time around all went as one would hope. No weird calls other than those from our friends.

(All this was on top of the power company getting us confused with another customer in our apartment complex who was moving out. When we got back from our honeymoon, our power had been off for about a week. Yeah.)

Travel and appetite

Some days when I’m traveling, my appetite gets extremely erratic. I’m not sure why…my current theory is that my digestion slows to almost nothing when I have to sit for like twelve hours without moving, and it may take several days to get moving again.

Anyway, we’re in Copenhagen, and I’m having one of those days. We got up and ate at the restaurant buffet (and I ate too much, as I always do at buffets). Then we went to Tivoli Gardens, and walked around looking for something to do. Unfortunately, there were two things to do: ride carnival rides, or eat at the restaurants. And I couldn’t work up an appetite for anything.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a 7-Eleven to get some drinks. They had something under the counter called “Raw Balls” that caught our eye, so we bought 3 of those, and I ate one and a bite of another.

So that’s my total food consumption today: breakfast, and one-and-a-fraction Raw Balls.

Bah. Bots.

Am I the only person who hangs up on an incoming phone call the moment you hear that pause at the start that means that a predictive dialer is looking for a human to take over?

You’d think they’d game it to make the system make a little noise during that pause, like a cough to make you think the person who’s calling is there, but momentarily inconvenienced. Admittedly, we’d all learn to recognize those little tricks as well, but it’d work for a while.

I was sitting at my desk at home this morning when the land line rang. Absent-mindedly, I immediately answered it.

Pause. Classic predictive-dialer dead-air sound.

Then a human voice came on the line: “Hello?” Without even thinking I hung the phone up. 

Some time later I tried to check the caller ID to see who I’d hung up on, but for some reason the call wasn’t listed. Perhaps it’d been too short in duration to be captured.

I idly wonder who it was… but I don’t really care. They didn’t call back. Can’t have been very important.

(I’d turn off our land line entirely but having it is how we get DSL.)

Unread Email


I work for a software company. I travel all over the USA consulting with and training our customers. As a consequence of this, it’s not uncommon that I get a glimpse of someone’s email — usually because they’re connected to the projector and happened to need to go into their email to look something up. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restrain myself from going “you have HOW many unread emails?”

Earlier this week, I was at one such customer site. And one of their staff did exactly what I said above — launched their email while connected to the projector. And right there on the screen, next to their inbox, was the indicator that they had 20,000 unread emails.

Twenty freaking thousand.

And this was otherwise a very competent, intelligent person who was a pleasure to work with. We’re not talking some computer-challenged person who calls the Web “the google” or thinks that everyone still uses America Online.

I wanted to say “you know, it might be an idea to just mark everything older than a month read, and get a fresh start, so you can actually use the unread indicator for its intended purpose: letting you know you have new email.” But I didn’t. Wouldn’t have done any good. There are two types of people in the world: hoarders and non-hoarders. Even in the world of email. A hoarder is terrified of getting rid of anything because it might be important some day, and that includes all those unread emails. The idea of marking everything over a month old — or, heck, over six months old — “read” would be in their eyes equivalent to tossing out the chemical process for turning lead into gold.

Now, if you’re reading this and you have lots of unread email in your inbox, you may not fall into the “hoarder” category. You might just get a lot of email, or you might be one of those people who feels that every email deserves a deep and personal and well-thought-out response.

I try to keep my inbox all but empty. In my personal email, I have Gmail rules to file new emails to folders, and I use the “is:unread” search to review them. If I look at them and go “You know, I can live without that” I just mark ’em read. I recently started unsubscribing to every mailing list I’ve signed up for over the years because, in the sober light of day, almost none of them really added any value to my life. As for personal emails from actual humans, it’s generally not hard to identify those that do need a response from those that don’t. And I just don’t let myself fall behind on those. As a result, the only stuff that ever winds up in my “inbox” folder proper is stuff from people I’ve never heard from before, which therefore don’t hit any of my rules. And I file those, and set up rules if appropriate, and my inbox goes back to its pristine emptiness.

As for work emails, well, I’m terrified that I might miss something critical… which in my job, might mean that I show up 3,000 miles away from where I’m supposed to be. I have Outlook rules that file all the corporate heads-up messages and “we’ve hired a new VP for a region of the company’s operations you’ve never heard of and will never interact with in any way” emails to a folder where I can happily mark them read and ignore after a quick glance. Other stuff gets automatically sorted into folders by customer, so I can quickly review everything relating to a given customer without having to go searching for it all. If I encounter something that’s important that I be able to find quickly, I don’t leave it unread — I flag it using an Outlook category like “Critical” or “Project Code” or “Really Important To Not Forget”. And then I have search folders where I can quickly go to those messages. And when they’re no longer important, I remove the flag.

Marking things unread just because you think they’re important is so … weird. How can you then tell the true unread stuff from the stuff you’ve read before and just need to be able to locate quickly? Which, incidentally, you can’t because it’s all mixed in with several hundred or thousand other real unread email messages?

Makes no sense to me. But on the other hand, there are people out there who eat dirt and people out there who keep sewer rats as pets. It takes all kinds to make a world.


There is nothing — and I mean NOTHING — more pleasant than stumbling across a bag of old this-and-that (miscellaneous camera gear, and suchlike) which cats have taken to peeing on. For months, as far as one can tell.

Our cats have been sabotaging us by going in places we really would rather they not — but this is probably the worst I’ve run across yet. The stench of concentrated, aged … well, you can imagine.

I think we’ve got a fix for it, though. A week or so ago I finally convinced Carole to go back to Pestell cat litter, which we used to use, in place of World’s Best, which she preferred. Carole’s been unwilling to consider a change (she is nothing if not a little bit stubborn) but we’ve had too many “they’ve did WHAT WHERE?” incidents lately. A week ago we did a trial run of Pestell in one of our many litter boxes, and in that time, the cats have used that one box almost to the exclusion of all others. Carole likes World’s Best because it produces less dust and because it seems to be less heavy for the same volume of litter. I like Pestell because the cats seem to like Pestell. He who ignores cat preferences does so at his peril.

Given the results over the last week, we went out today and bought five more bags of the Pestell. If I’m right, these little peccadilloes should soon be a thing of the past.

But for now, I’ve got some very smelly old camera parts (underwater diving case, etcetera) airing in a corner of my office. (Fortunately, the bag they were in took the worst of it.)


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