fuzzy unicorn loves pea soup

June 3rd, 2012

Today I learned that commercial paint colors are like racehorses, inasmuch as names once christened can never be used again. I have that on the authority of a woman who names paint shades for a living, which might be one of the most awesome jobs I’ve ever heard of. Absolutely unique color names are said to come in handy when it’s necessary to touch up your exterior, regardless of the paint’s vintage. That’s assuming you actually know its name.


Our house currently is painted the color of a 1950s-era avocado refrigerator, which is markedly different in appearance from the exterior paint color marketed as “Avocado.” I don’t know the correct nomenclature of our shade, as we were not in on the decision to paint our house this somewhat jaunty green. Had we been, we might have said, “Hey, how about ‘Quaking Grass’ or ‘Guacamole’?” the latter of which is also curiously different from the color marketed as “Avocado.” But due to circumstances beyond psychic control, we weren’t involved in discussions about preparing our house for sale—as it turned out, to us. Our lack of input in the staging of our home was apparent not only in its unfortunate exterior color but in the former estate’s choice to install cheap, white, wall-to-wall carpet throughout. (There are as many shades of white in carpets as in paints, so ours may have been “Face Powder” or “Sponge,” the latter of which seems like a particularly poor marketing choice given its literal description of how new homeowners can expect white carpet to interact with their dogs and cats.)


Our house, with crashed car that has not moved in six months


Now, 10 years after our purchase of Party Mint Manor, the house desperately needs repainting—the sponge-colored carpet, having long since absorbed too much of the spite and bile that comes with animal companionship, was replaced by laminate years ago—and we need a fresh coat of curb appeal as we are considering putting it up for sale.


We’re deciding to sell our home while the market is as soft and flaccid as rotting celery* not so much because we want to ensure that we get out of our property as little profit as possible but because it makes financial sense to me to maximize our savings in cost differential. I’d rather take on a probable $75,000 increase in mortgage now than, say, a $125,000 difference for a similar upgrade when houses are regarded once more as attractive lifelong investments and less as wood and stucco monuments to economic ruin. (Though, to be sure, your Uncle Jerry will continue to tell you cautionary tales about friends of friends who bought at the top of the market and continue to pay $1.2 million mortgages for homes now worth less than $70,000, and his warnings will become more shrill even as the bulk of foreclosure signs are taken down in sad, scabrous yards, because complacency is the devil and on weekends she wears a gold Century 21 coat and holds open houses with freshly baked cookies. Uncle Jerry will repeat these stories whenever you complain about your neighborhood, or discuss anything remotely related to a house, or mention money, or pet his dog. And then he will gleefully talk about having bought his own home in 1972 for two dollars, with 50 cents down, and tell you that because of Proposition 13 his property tax amounts to a small annual rebate from the Los Angeles County Assessor.)


You can find a pic of anything online, including rotting celery


*Were I paid to name paint shades, I would propose “Rotting Celery” over the present “Fountain Mist.” Which name is more evocative of a reliable shade in your imagination? Then again, given its inherent vividity, “Rotting Celery” has probably already been used. It may even be the actual name of our present paint shade. A namer of colors would have to have significant institutional knowledge in the field; the better to not have to waste time looking up the alluringly melancholic “Lettuce Alone” to discover that it, too, already represents its own springy yellow-green shade.


While one-name paint colors are common enough, the most pleasing formula seems to be x + y, with y being a food—generally one that’s cultivated—or another type of flora, and x being an illuminating adjective. Much market research has no doubt concluded that names like “Burled Redwood” are more appealing to potential consumers than, say, “Sleeping Tabby.” While a number of people loathe cats and therefore may be inclined to reject a tabby-colored home, however in imagined peaceful repose, few people object to enormous trees that smell nice. And according to marketing folks, consumers find it difficult to get past names they can’t identify with, regardless of their potential connection with the shade.


Sleeping tabby, hidden dragon


For our new primary, or “field,” exterior color we were initially thinking about something in the slate-blue family, available in shades known commercially, however vaguely, as “Americana,” “Graceful,” and “Pageant Song.” Blues, the aforementioned professional namer of color shades says, are the most difficult to name. “We always come up with ocean names,” she says, “but sometimes you get tired of ocean names!” That explains the available blue shades “Teeny Bikini,” “Hush a Bye,” and “Magic Wand.” Our blue plans came under internal scrutiny when Elizabeth’s mother reacted to our idea with a long pause, followed by, “Well, I imagine if I were looking to buy a house and it turned out to be blue, I’d just as soon drive by as go inside.”


Now we’re considering “Pineapple Sage,” which is between “Nettle” and “Pickled Okra” on Pittsburgh Paints’ palette of mossy greens. Or maybe “Pea Soup.” Either could be nicely offset with a trim color of “Fuzzy Unicorn” or “Popcorn Ball.” But frankly, I’m overwhelmed by the 1,960 colors the brand offers and I kind of wish that someone would show me just 12 and force me to choose from those.


Maybe I shouldn’t be so invested in the final result anyway. With any luck we’ll make this real estate transition soon, and it will then fall to the next owner to live with our unfortunate choices for the next 10 years, just as Elizabeth and I have borne the consequences of the former owners’ grasshopper-pie whimsy. Because why customize your home to suit your personal aesthetic when you can instead sigh at it daily for over a decade? We’ve saved up our DIY energy to make ill-informed home improvements that we’re hoping won’t make the next potential buyer drive by rather than come inside, and I’m coming to think that any color we choose will make at least half the people groan. Who knew that slate blue could be so disagreeable? Maybe we should try being less inoffensive to the mass market and instead make our home irresistible to the one person who’s dying for a “Candied Yam” exterior with a nice “Banana Pudding” trim. If nothing else, it would be a fitting farewell to the neighbors across the street.

what does toni morrison want now?

July 29th, 2011


How can I have left the house this morning without opening my letter from “Toni Morrison, Author”?

image from The Guardian

It’s possible that “letter” in this instance is an exaggeration—connoting a level of intimacy that “Toni Morrison, Author” and I haven’t yet achieved. It might more appropriately be classified a piece of mail at this point. Nevertheless, at home, on my desk next to our cat, Halo, who may be actively chewing on it as I write this, is an envelope addressed to me, with the return address “Toni Morrison, Author.” Because I might not have opened it if it just said “Toni Morrison,” or “Toni Morrison, Not the Author.”

But in reality, I didn’t open it, however intriguing the return address. What could possibly have distracted me to such a point, other than pickled brain chemicals, that it piqued my curiosity in the extreme then utterly escaped my consciousness as I checked e-mail, made and ate breakfast, and drove to work (where I am writing this on my lunch break, for those who care about that sort of thing)? Now, having suddenly remembered it, I want to drive home immediately to find out what’s inside, but I would probably forget about it again on the way to my house.

This is nothing like receiving a piece of mail from, say, “Barack Obama, President.” I hope this doesn’t make anyone feel unspecial, but he sends those same letters to all the Democrats. “Toni Morrison, Author,” on the other hand, she’s not known to send out bulk mail. Plus, I’ve never voted for her, though if she ran for office I probably would, unless it turned out that her platform was antigay. Or perhaps expanding hunting licenses to include puppy and kitten seasons. Though I might support cats-hunting-buffaloes season.

photo from Funny Cats Hunting, naturally

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never belonged to a Toni Morrison fan club or mailing list that would send general announcement–type news my way, even if she did feel that, as a Nobel laureate who had her 80th birthday party at the Library of Congress, she really needed to work on her self-marketing edge to compete with Stephenie Meyer.

That leaves me with several potential reasons that “Toni Morrison, Author” might wish to contact me:

She’s been researching her family tree and believes that we are related. I have reason to believe that this possibility is quite remote. Many years ago my paternal grandfather cavalierly stated, when I asked about his dad’s parents, “Hell, I don’t know. We might not even be Morrisons,” disabusing me of a longstanding assumption I never thought to question. Great Grandpapa “Morrison,” it turns out, may not have been a completely law-abiding gentleman, and he may have assumed a false name, you know, while fleeing England for Canada. Allegedly. So I suppose Great Great Grandpapa Whomever could have been anyone, but he was therefore not likely in any way involved in any potentially exploitative relationships with any of Toni Morrison’s ancestors, which pleases me more than a little. Besides which, Morrison is “Toni Morrison, Author’s” married name. And her ex-husband is Jamaican. Do you see how remote this has all become? Nevertheless, I’m pleased to share her initials, and perhaps that’s reciprocal on her part.

She got hold of the paper I wrote about Beloved in my Postmodern American Literature class 16 years ago 
and wants to speak with me about my embarrassingly inadequate grasp of magical realism.
She also wants me to know that Thandie Newton was not her first choice to play the title role in the movie but that no one ever listens to her and that’s why the film, which she will remind you was based on her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, was outgrossed by Bride of Chucky on its opening weekend.

She read this blog post and wants to give me a large sum of money to fund my craft, in part to secure reserved seating at the right hand of God. Or she wants to get in contact with Mr. Popov to help poor little Elina because she’s tired of watching her pal Oprah rack up all the do-gooder points by building academies in impoverished regions and giving all those middle-class American ladies brand new Corollas.


It’s now 10 hours later and I’m home again, sitting with the unopened mail, after a failed attempt at scoring Styx concert tickets at a Red Cross blood drive sponsored by a local classic rock station. Actually, my randomly chosen blood donation time happened to coincide with the KLOS blood drive, but once I found out about the concert ticket opportunities I was totally ready to rock the Paradise. Sadly, the Styx tickets were already gone, leaving me with either Judas Priest or Cheap Trick, of which I chose neither. I can’t chance the subliminal self-harm messages in JP’s songs, however not-subliminally gay “Metal God” Rob Halford is these days, and the Dream Police might would just give me nightmares.



And then when I came home there was falafel to be eaten—the worst falafel I have ever tried to eat, and I’ve eaten some awfully awful falafel—and, oh yeah, right, the mail from “Toni Morrison, Author”!

Here goes…

Dear Ms. Morrison

Please let me introduce myself. My name is Toni Morrison. Even before becoming the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, I never played it safe in the books I wrote.

I learned early on that if change is to occur, one must be willing to think and do the unthinkable. That’s what I love about Morris Dees, a white friend of mine in Alabama.

Wait, I’m willing to think and have done the unthinkable. I’m also white. Why are you writing me a letter about the Southern Poverty Law Center guy? Are you only writing to ask me for money? Because you must know that I don’t have any.

Blah blah blah, hate groups, blah blah blah, teaching tolerance, blah blah blah, homophobia. Oh wait, here she says, There is only one place you and I belong in this struggle and that’s working right alongside Morris and his remarkable organization.

That’s right, “Toni Morrison, Author,” you and I! What can we do together to eradicate hate? And are Styx tickets involved?

Blah blah blah, love and acceptance, blah blah blah, diversity, blah blah blah, tax-deductible donation. There it is. Blood I can give. Money, not so much. Which is too bad, because if I act now I can have my name added to the Wall of Tolerance, which is Civil Rights Memorial–adjacent in Montgomery, Alabama, which would practically make me a retroactive Civil Rights pioneer. What a bummer I can’t afford it.

But “Toni Morrison, Author” sent me stickers—not puffy butterflies, just address labels—plus this Certificate of Appreciation, which I imagine is intended to make me feel sheepish about not shaking loose any change.



Listen, I aim to teach tolerance simply by walking around being intolerable.

Also by letting approximately two years lapse between blog entries. We have so much to catch up on, me and anyone who still reads stuff longer than 140 characters.

In the meantime, I need to go find a frame to display my important contribution to the ongoing fight against hatred and intolerance in America…or at least my presence on the kind of mailing list that would single me out as the type of person who might support that sort of thing, which is an honor in itself.

valley of the boob(s)

October 13th, 2009

It was without question the nicest doctor’s office I have ever entered. Spare, spacious, and moodlit with rice-paper tower lamps and recessed lights. Four semi-lounge chairs invited clients to settle in and relax with a magazine—Glamour, Allure, Sunset, Wine Spectator—as if one were poolside on a Princess cruise. These reading choices, no doubt selected for their idle browsability, were neatly arrayed on a sturdy coffee table, which itself was centered on an Oriental rug, a real one, not one of those winking acrylic imposters at IKEA that start shedding red fuzz all over your living room 10 minutes after you lay it down. Twelve-inch ocean-colored marbled tile subtly offset soft white walls whose hushed serenity was broken only by three oil paintings bursting with bright colors and a flat-screen TV wall-mounted above a table of brochures advertising Cynosure, Juvéderm, Restylane, and Latisse, the latter of which, I learned, is a treatment for eyelash hypotrichosis, a chilling term for the relatively nonmalignant condition of short eyelashes.


While the wife and I have a DVR and enjoy our ability to fast-forward through commercials—thereby helping to kill the time-honored model of sponsor-driven television we’ve known our entire lives—whenever I see an advertisement flitting by for a pharmaceutical I’ve never heard of I make her back up, because I find novel drugs and their ads tragicomic in a complacently American way. That’s how I learned of the possible side effects of Latisse, whose first-line application is as a glaucoma treatment—we all knew that no scientists actually set out to “cure” short eyelashes; clinicians simply noticed that glaucoma patients who were taking Lumigan, the alter ego of Latisse, to decrease ocular hypertension, which sounds way more painful to me than eyelash hypotrichosis, developed darker pigment in and around their eyes, which made for thicker, longer lashes. Now, look alive, this hyper eyelash growth is not a permanent side effect; eyelash hypotrichosis is as chronic as disappointment and will reassert its bad ass the moment you discontinue use. However, the potential darkening of your iris pigment is likely permanent, so, you know, if the eyes are windows to the soul, your soul will become darker too. Permanently. Just saying. Heaven knows I’m a major consumer of pharma. Still, it seems excessive to me—especially in a world visited by the miracle of mascara—to take a prescription medication for the rest of your life, at a cost of $120 per month, to maintain slightly longer eyelashes, but that’s probably only because I dodged the eyelash hypotrichosis bullet. My eyelashes are quite long. And my irises are already plenty brown.

I could go on about the injectible wrinkle fillers that were on offer, like Juvéderm, Restylane, and Radiesse, any of which promise to usurp your unsightly nasolabial folds (a.k.a. smile lines), melomental folds (creases emanating from the corners of your mouth, or “marionette lines” in aesthetician parlance), crow’s feet, or just about any other mark of a life well-lived—for about six to nine months, after which your body absorbs it and your face resumes its natural joyful state. But one must put her judgmental opinions about necessity and excess aside when entering the previously alien dimension of plastic surgery and injectible/pharmaceutical cosmetology. I was there for the former, or at least for a consult about the former. And it wasn’t just some random plastic surgeon’s den of solicitude. I was in the surgical cosmetology capital of the world, Beverly Hills’ “Golden Triangle” neighborhood, so named for the obscene consumerism and self-righteous privilege that radiate from its Rodeo Drive nucleus like the seductive, combustible rays of the sun. Touch me, skanks.


Longtime readers of this blog may remember, as hard as they’ve tried to forget, that my girls developed in a free-spirited, artistic way, with one big, floppy D-cup accompanied by a little sister two full cup sizes her junior. I would more plainly call this a developmental deformity, but I don’t want yonier-than-thou feminists all up in my grill for not embracing the perfection of my temple. On the contrary, I mask my goddess-given uniqueness, augmenting my dwarfish side with a prosthetic to approximate a chest that fails to alarm strangers.

Though I long ago stepped up from the nylon-covered foam pad of my youth—which had to be surreptitiously wrung out whenever I was so bold as to go swimming—to a silicone insert that conducts at nearly the same bounce rate as its mate when I walk and feels less like a wadded sock to those who hug me, it’s still uncomfortable and prone to slippage, and I’m tired of stealing moments for furtive adjustments. If I were less self-conscious I suppose I could adjust it more brazenly, like men shifting their merchandise in the deli window, but I’m afraid I could never summon up enough attitude to make that maneuver seem like anything but a lonely lesbian awkwardly groping her own tits.

In truth, I’ve just never taken pride of ownership in my chest; inasmuch as I think about my breasts at all, it’s mostly about how to camouflage them—or how much I’d like to not have to think about camouflaging them. I’ve been dreaming about corrective surgery since I was a teenager, but it’s not the kind of procedure one’s HMO covers—I’ve certainly tried to convince mine that they should—and it’s always been beyond the means of my pitifully stagnant income. But lately, catching a draft off the success of my overeducated wife—who has generously begun to cover a larger share of our household expenses with her more dynamic salary—I’ve found myself with greater financial freedom. So, totally taking advantage of my wife’s largesse, I’m blowing my newfound savings on plastic surgery. Good thing I don’t look like a trophy wife. (Give me time: My nasolabial and melomental folds are only getting deeper.)

So why lop off the big boob instead of augmenting the little one? Augmentation is, after all, less expensive, less invasive, and far less scarring—a state of affairs I find corrupt; how else to explain this being one of very few instances in which women are encouraged to want more, and punished for wanting less. I’m sorry, but if surgeons have figured out how to insert and secure 1-kilogram silicone slabs through straw-sized incisions tucked discreetly under the arms, how have they not yet stumbled on a way to decrease breast mass without cutting off our nipples and slicing down and around the mammary like they’re skinning and de-boning chicken breasts?

Still, I do want less. It’s true that as an adolescent I tried exercising only on the right side to increase the breast muscle of my stunted member. It didn’t work. At all. Probably owing to the fact that breasts are composed of milk ducts and fat, neither of which much respond to exercise.  As an adult, well, my personal presentation can be somewhat at odds with itself, with a pronounced disconnect between my chosen aesthetic and my unchosen mammatude; even as my breasts may well be the only characteristic of prove-it-in-your-face womanhood that keeps me from being bounced out of ladies’ restrooms, I’m tired of them lording their bounty over me like some sick cosmic joke.

And isn’t it a wonderful thing that modern medicine has given us ways to “correct” just about anything we find disharmonious to our own big ideas about how we feel we should, want, or deserve to look? (For a staggering fee, the indirect costs of which will be passed along to my wife; good thing I married her when I had the chance.)

I’m tempted here to address the issue of misguided plastic surgery. There are plenty of people who manage to incorrect themselves in their bitchfight with nature, even people who, by virtue of having had, say, a dozen or two or three surgical procedures in their quest to micromanage their genetic code, find themselves featured on A&E, which has lately found its niche in dwelling on the addictions and obsessive compulsions of Americans gripped by PTSD, dysphoria, or even simple ennui. But who am I to say that my boob job is somehow more meritorious than that of the 110-pound 21-year-old who knows in her heart that she was really meant to have F-cup breasts? And if her newfound “self-esteem” opens avenues previously closed to her—like maybe the gates of the Playboy Mansion in Bel-Air…

Or even the stage door at San Bernardino’s Flesh gentlemen’s bar…


Well, then bully for her!

One can look up any number of websites that have little purpose beyond tracking plastic surgery disasters, generally of the celebrity variety because, really, how many uncelebrated people are going to emerge from anonymity simply to say, “Wow, look at this horrifying ‘after’ shot of me! I’m not sure what I was going for, but I sure ended up disfigured!”

Hence, the old saying is particularly applicable here: I didn’t want to just pick somebody out of the phonebook. Not that anybody uses phonebooks anymore. My wife and I occasionally receive a copy of the yellow pages but haven’t cracked one open in years, and when we recently found a white pages volume lying on the doorstep we were momentarily fascinated by the relic, as if an IBM Selectric typewriter had been mysteriously delivered to our side porch.


Needless to say, I had not started my search in the yellow pages. Rather, I asked a transgender professor at my wife’s institution of higher learning whether he could recommend any local plastic surgeons, figuring that surgeons who regularly do “top” surgeries for trans dudes would have no trouble whatsoever with the level of reduction/reconstruction I have in mind.

I had been harboring some concern that maybe someone who spends so much time thinking about breasts—defying mass-to-perk physics ratios, discerning ideal nipple placement, defining perfect cleavage plumb lines—would try to talk me into, if not a straight-up augmentation on the wee side, meeting somewhere in the middle of the two, perhaps at a nice, plump C? Like maybe there’s a whole cadre of surgeons involved in a secret fraternal organization foresworn to protect the worldwide breast population from fallen women like me, like a sort of Operation Rescue for boobs. I didn’t want any contention with my surgeon about desired outcomes, because at a certain critical point in this transaction I’ll be out cold on a table and at the mercy of the surgeon’s mammipulations.

Trans dude having come up empty, I went to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons website, where you can search doctors by surgery type, ZIP Code, etc. I chose “breast reconstruction” and selected a 10-mile radius as my parameter. It returned 194 hits, about 150 of which sported Golden Triangle addresses. Even I can’t believe there’s that much call for boobwork by Angelenos, and I’ve lived among their peculiar breed my whole life.

Daunted, I had to narrow my search down somehow, and of the 194 doctors only a handful had recognizably female names, so I started with them, guessing I was less likely to encounter pushback from a female surgeon. The “patient care consultant” for the first doctor I contacted was friendly and incredibly responsive to follow-up e-mails—though the surgeon’s consultation fee seemed a bit on the absurd precious side. Given that, before setting up a first date I wanted to have a reasonable expectation that we were going to get to second base; I didn’t want to fork over $250 taking a surgeon to dinner only to find that she didn’t want to go to bed with me, or that she had a tacky, shedding IKEA rug. When I expressed concerns to patient care consultant Sonya about whether or not the surgeon and I might be on the same results page, or living in the same financial universe, she invited me to e-mail photos of my breasts, front and profiles, for a preliminary look-see and quote.

Enter dear wife for weirdest photo shoot ever.

You know how you sometimes look at pictures of yourself and say, “Jesus, do I really look like that?” That feeling is amplified in naked photos. I sincerely didn’t think it was possible for me to harbor more dislike for that particular portion of my body, but as I sat editing images of my dysmorphic chest, cropping out all references to my head and happy trail, I couldn’t imagine how I had managed to look past it for so long. Have I had carnival mirrors all this time?


I sent the images to Sonya, resisting the urge to apologize in the body of the e-mail. I’m certain that mine isn’t the first set of amateur, anonymous, totally unsexy naked pics Sonya has been sent, nor will it be the last.

I wonder if guys surfing for free online porn ever look at before-and-after shots of breast augmentations. There seems to be an endless supply out there—most categorized by cup size, which can be pretty handy for the discerning breast man. To get an idea of what my reduction would look like, I had to use the “before” and “after” shots in reverse, flipping, for instance, A-to-D and B-to-D augmentations. This was annoying because I wanted to see an actual surgically enhanced breast in the size I was shopping for: These ragtag A’s and B’s were all just as prolapsed as mine, with none of the lifting and smoothing and precision nipplescaping that I’m hoping for in a finished product. I couldn’t find a single site that pictured a woman who had undergone a reduction with an end-point size below a C cup. Is there really no demand for such a result? Do surgeons just not post those pics because they don’t want to scare away clientele who may be worried about having too much of their womanhood slurped out while comatose? Or are the surgeons members of Operation Brescue?

Knowing that most women get reductions in order to relieve neck and back pain, the scope of these reductions seem startlingly minor to me, sometimes sloughing just a partial cup size. And pictures I’ve found depicting disparity corrections suggest that women overwhelmingly opt for an overall augmentation, with implants of differing sizes equalizing the imbalance. At the end of the day, it seems, everybody wants more, not less. Even kittens.


The online transmission of my own “cheesecake” pics—which felt weird enough; I can’t imagine e-mailing a naked picture of myself with my head attached. I guess that’s what separates me from the TMI generation, who gamely engage in sexting and then seem genuinely surprised when, post-breakup, their ex-boyfriends disseminate the nudie shots to anyone with a cell phone. Gah, I clearly wrote FYEO right there in the subject line!

But now I guess I know how those girls feel. I received no further correspondence from Sonya, not even when I followed up five days later to ask whether the doctor had had a chance to view the pics, adding, solicitously, “Now that I’ve decided to give myself this gift, I’m very excited to move forward with it.”

Nope. Nothing. Sonya may at this very moment be sending pictures of my tits to her entire e-mail address book. Subject line: OMG, so FUBAR!

But I wouldn’t let Sonya’s rejection dissuade me. I simply moved on to girlfriend doctor number two, who seemed more qualified than the last anyway, carrying board certification in both surgery and plastic surgery; her office asked for the less precious consultation fee of $125. And her patient care consultant, Nadia, informed me that a patient had just canceled an appointment two weeks out and would I like to see the doctor then? Yes, I really, really would!

Which brings us back to me, sitting in a semi-lounge chair in a moodlit office not reading a fluffy magazine, surrounded by brochures for injectible cosmetic enhancements, waiting for my name to be called, hoping this doctor would be the one.

To be continued…

the good, the bad, and the ungrateful

September 13th, 2009

I had a dream last night that our home was infested with giant cockroaches that I could not kill. They were too smart and agile to stomp on, and spraying them with Raid only pissed them off. In sharp contrast to the other dream I remember from last night, in which my supervisor told me I should definitely ask for a $20,000 raise and that he’d make sure I got it, the cockroach dream was one of sheer terror.

I’ve never thought twice about stomping cockroaches when I see them in our detached garage; if I let them live out there, I figure, it’s just a matter of time before they’ll ask to come inside. And actually, they won’t ask.


Spiders, on the other hand, I’ve always treated with a kind, if not downright welcoming, manner. When I see one in the house I generally go find a newspaper or Dixie cup to gently scoop it up so that I can release it into the backyard. If you’re a bit of an arachnophobe and don’t want to get quite that close to the little guy, here’s a transfer gadget that probably breaks when you look at it funny.


Me, I don’t even bother depositing spiders far from the house; I just open the door and set them down to make their merry way where they will. There are times when I see a spider far up the bathroom wall and think, Meh, let it be, but that’s usually because it just seems like too much trouble to go get a stepstool. I may even feel a little lazy or guilty in those instances because I know that the spider needs insect prey to survive—I really ought to put it outside where it can thrive, but again, I have to go get the stepstool.

Concern for insects’ nutritional needs, I’ve recently learned, is not a personal quirk. On Friday night my wife and I went to see Cheryl Wheeler play live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where Wheeler asked whether anyone in the audience followed her practice in hotel rooms whereby when she encounters a fly and can’t manage to shoo it out a window or door, she goes to the vending machine to buy it something to eat—usually a granola bar—because she worries that it will starve in the sparse confines of a hotel room. I adore Cheryl Wheeler.

I have to admit that I kill indoor flies, and even outdoor ones if they get to be a nuisance on the patio. Choosing a fly-control method is its own nuisance. I’ve always thought of fly strips as trashy and bug zappers as cruel, so last summer we purchased a trap that you load with bait-infused water; flies enter for the delicious attractant (which smells like sewer water, but no one ever accused fecal-dwelling flies of having good taste), find themselves unable to escape, and drown in the water. That’s cruel too, I realize, but it was one of the few truly effective solutions out there (said online knowers) that I thought wouldn’t be gross to look at and handle. Besides, at least the poor fellas would have a good meal before they died.


I was wrong about the not-gross part. As the dead flies collected in the reservoir they became a liquefied pool of death, and if I was tardy in emptying the container—for which I wore a dust mask and Playtex gloves—maggots would begin to spawn in the death pool. It was, frankly, one of the most disgusting tasks I’ve ever been forced to confront.

This summer, with due diligence, I discovered (through other online knowers) a not-at-all-gross fly deterrent that seems to work pretty well. Apparently, the crap-eating, garbage-loving, maggoty little beasts despise basil. Enter basil plant on patio. Not so much trouble with the flies this year, though I’ll admit to some suspicion that the enormous number of flies trapped on our patio last season was in part a result of the trap’s bait attracting more flies to our patio.  At any rate, even if our relatively fly-free summer wasn’t really about the basil, the plant smells great and can be useful in cooking besides. Win-win.

But the question remains, why so hostile toward flies and cockroaches while kind toward spiders and “cute” insects like butterflies and ladybugs? There’s a good argument to be made for usefulness to the environment. Spiders control insect populations, butterflies help pollinate gardens, and ladybugs eat aphids, a common garden pest (in the 1980s, after Southern California was blanketed with several cycles of overnight malathion spraying via crop planes to control a fruit fly infestation, ladybugs also disappeared, after which aphids ran rampant in household gardens and commercial orchards; when humans mess with shit, other shit gets messed up).

Flies and cockroaches, on the other hand, are omnivorous refuse dwellers who spread germs and disease. That’s probably why we have a superhero called Spider-Man and not one called Cockroach-Man.

Sing it with me: “Cockroach-Man, Cockroach-Man, does whatever a cockroach can!”

But eating garbage is purposeful, and we humans produce an awful lot of it. We also happen to be omnivorous consumers who efficiently spread germs and disease. So we either discriminate against flies and cockroaches because they’re ugly (and we’re shallow) or because we’re competitively jealous.

Consider the cockroach, which can survive for up to a month without food, up to 45 minutes without air, and up to 30 minutes underwater. It can slow down its heart rate at will and can withstand up to 15 times the amount of radiation that would be lethal to the average person. It is one of the fastest insects (or animals) on the planet, clocking speeds of 50 body lengths per second, the equivalent of a human running 205 miles per hour. And unlike their relatively short-lived insect pals, a cockroach can live for up to a year.

The housefly, by contrast, lives only 15 to 30 days, but what it lacks in life quality it makes up for in reproductive quantity, with the ability to lay up to 500 eggs during a single cycle—oh, and females reach sexual maturity at 36 hours old. Here’s a couple of flies getting some.


Houseflies are really anything but common: They can walk on walls and ceilings and, of course, they can fly, all feats of storied human fantasy. They’re also pure ninjas. Professor Michael Dickinson of the California Institute of Technology released a study in 2008 revealing that a fly’s brain is able to anticipate a threat, calculate the angle of attack, and evade the maneuver in the course of 100 milliseconds. Though Dickinson has an affinity for flies owing to their technical talents and claims that he personally never swats them, his research has at last given humans’ fly-swatting technique game.


Given all that potential, Dickinson might ask, what’s not to like about the housefly—except for the fact that they constantly vomit and deposit fecal matter on household surfaces?

It’s not like spiders are Polly Perfect. Some of them bite, as I was reminded Thursday night when I couldn’t get comfortable in bed and discovered an irritated red bump on my rump. I’m fine now, thanks. Apparently it wasn’t a brown recluse spider, a species whose bites can kill you dead. I would post a picture here of an advanced BRS bite, but I don’t want to ugly up my blog that much—and I say that having posted that cockroach picture. But go ahead, take a moment now to look up “brown recluse spider bite” in Google images, then try to come back and not hate on me.

The good news is that, as implied by their name, brown recluse spiders don’t so much like people…or other animals or insects for that matter—they prefer to scavenge for dead insects rather than live prey. But they take up residence in dark, undisturbed spaces like attics and basements, and they hunt for food far from their webs—which they use for nesting, not trapping—and tend to take temporary refuge during hunting expeditions in bedding and such. So while they would just as soon not come in contact with humans, and humans would way rather not come in contact with them, the opportunities during which we might meet each other unexpectedly are rife—and then they try to kill us.


My spider bite has proven unfatal thus far. Still, I feel utterly betrayed. After all that not-killing, some spider up and bites me on the ass. It was probably one of those that I saw in the house and ignored—now starving because I killed all its flies—and if the bite wasn’t enough to get my attention, now the little fucker is sending giant cockroaches to haunt my dreams. A fitting retribution, I imagine, for our delineation of good insect from bad, beautiful from ugly, friend from nuisance, welcome guest from marked for death.

the thousand–dollar goat

August 27th, 2009

We’re getting a goat!

Not me and my wife—our property isn’t zoned for hooved animals. Probably not horned animals either. Wait, are there any horned animals who don’t have hooves? Horns and paws? Or claws? I know we’re zoned for clawed animals because of the cannibalistic KFC-eating chicken from across the street.


No, we’ll be keeping our goat in Rwanda under the stewardship of my sister Valerie Mukamana, who has made real my 3½-year-old wish to effect positive change in someone’s life through the awesomely powerful gift of livestock.

Those who have read my blog for some length of time may recall posts about my first two Rwandan sisters, here and here. We were matched via Women for Women International, an organization through which I’ve been delighted to discover that, somewhere, my measly monthly contribution of $27 can still be parlayed into something more than three lunches at Baja Fresh.

To recap, on my drive to work one morning in March 2006, I heard an NPR story about a neighborhood association near Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, that functioned as a kind of emotional support and financial aid clinic for women who survived the 1994 genocide. The listener’s window into the story was Nehrama Jambare Alphonsein, who was raped by a machete-wielding Hutu supremacist and contracted HIV as a result. At the time of the NPR story, Nehrama, then 20—she was 9 at the time of the genocide, during which raping prepubescent girls was less a matter of sexual gratification than it was just another weapon of war—was raising three children, all of whom were orphans of the mass slaughter and one of whom was born with HIV.

Compounding those circumstances, many families, including Nehrama’s, mourn openly for sons killed in the genocide yet consider the raping of their daughters a matter of great family shame and therefore a taboo topic, leaving them without healing emotional outlets.

Like many Americans, my primary lens on the genocide was Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, and as with many such nonfiction accounts of chilling, seemingly impossible human violence, I felt impotent on finishing it, like I had little recourse but to shudder and move on.

But that morning I heard Nehrama speak of her daily visits to a neighborhood organization, located an hour’s walk from her home, where women with similar experiences shared amongst themselves without fear of judgment or stigma.

And then she spoke of her goats.

She had six of them, all bred from a source goat the neighborhood association had given her to help raise her family’s standard of living beyond the subsistence they were eking out cultivating beans and potatoes on a rented plot of land. Mind you, Nehrama’s family still lived in a mud hut with no electricity or running water, but I was cheered by her success with animal husbandry—in that NPR-listener way made up of equal parts idealism and guilt, leaving us with a powerful need to believe that, however sad, everything we hear about turns out fine in the end—and I was certain that Nehrama’s growing herd would soon turn her fortunes around.


Ha! Get it? Growing herd? Heh.

How much are goats? I wondered. And how could I buy one for a woman like Nehrama?

I didn’t want to ship a goat, of course—that’s just crazy talk—so when I got to work I set about trying to find an association online like the one discussed, and that’s how I found Women for Women International, an organization dedicated to helping women in war and postwar regions rebuild their lives through a scholarship program addressing basic needs, civil rights education, life and work skills, and community leadership roles. Neato! And best of all, I could sponsor a Rwandan woman directly. I would receive a picture and profile at the beginning of our relationship, as well as a report on how she felt her circumstances had improved at the end of our year together, and in the meantime we could swap letters so that I could hear all about her exciting new life raising goats!

Yeah, well, suck it, NPR idealist. Go sell your goats somewhere else. Your Rwandan sisters had crafts to do.

My first two sisters, in exit interviews at the completion of the yearlong scholarship, both said they had gained much from the program: Each were unemployed at the start but were now self-employed. Each said their general housing conditions and health had improved, and that they had gained self-confidence and knowledge of their civil rights. All of which is GREAT. But both, when asked what skills training they had undertaken, said “Knitting.”

There’s nothing wrong with knitting, of course. Some of my best friends knit (well, one of my online friends anyway, and she’s the partner of someone who might read this, and could probably kick my ass, so I want to make sure I cover it). And because I just started to feel like kind of an asshole for being disappointed in my sisters’ knitting pursuits, I Googled Rwandans and knitting and found an organization called, well, Rwanda Knits, which says of itself, “Our program enables [Rwandan women] to increase their incomes through economically sustainable knitting cooperatives, through which they produce garments for their domestic market and export markets.” Right, like I said, knitting was a very sensible and lucrative pursuit on my sisters’ part. Besides, how can you argue with the mad skills of clinic instructor Faina?

Faina with bags

Still, faced with a choice between working with yarn and farm animals, well, I was just hoping they would go for a nice dairy goat who would provide milk and cheese and perhaps even precious hours of amusement for the children. Not that I’m trying to tell anyone what to do with their scholarship opportunities. Or maybe I am a little, but I entered the sisterhood with a mission, and a little over $1,100 later we were still goatless. I just did a quick price check at GoatFinder.com (I know!) and discovered that goat kids start at $65—and that’s for a pedigreed, “show quality” goat sold in American dollars. Here’s a nubian kid from my new favorite site ZooBorns:


Spectacular nubian kids named Polka Dot aside, I reckon random goats bought with Rwandan francs cost a lot less.

However disappointed with the intransigence of the knitters (that just reminded me of the Knitters, the country project by members of X and the Blasters, and I wondered whether their 1985 album Poor Little Critter on the Road had ever been issued on CD, and not only has it, I found, but they put out an album in 2005 that I didn’t even know about; free association rocks!), I shouldered on to be matched with a third sister, which is where Valerie Mukamana comes in.

Valerie said in her entrance interview that she had received no schooling and could neither read nor write more than her name—differing from my other sisters, who had both attended primary school. Each of them had sent me cards and letters during our time together, telling me about their children and husbands, asking me about my children and my husband, and asking, if it’s not too much trouble, could I possibly send a picture? (This latter wish has gone unmet; I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea of revealing my sexual orientation to my sisters, fearing emotional rejection—it is the only part of my life in which I am closeted.)

Valerie, who has a husband and five kids and, like Nehrama, said they all live in a hut with no electricity or running water, also rated her family’s general health as poor and said they rarely can access medical treatment. Of all my sisters so far, Valerie seemed in the direst straits, so I was pleased to be matched with her. But I also consciously put aside my goat obsession for another year, thinking that even if she happened to receive livestock, I wouldn’t hear about it given her inability to correspond with me.

But then, earlier this month, I did receive a letter from Valerie. Had she dictated it to someone? Had she been a superstar in the literacy program? She wasn’t telling. Instead she told me that she had started selling bananas and tomatoes at the local market to help generate income and that she hoped her family could soon upgrade from their hut to an iron-sheeted house. She said that they had not been receiving many rains and asked whether we had been receiving any here. And, of course, she wondered about my own family and asked, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could I please send a picture?

She also wrote this: “I am hoping to buy a goat and other domestic animals so that I can fight against poverty.” (!)

I would go to Rwanda right now to help Valerie pick it out, but I just checked Travelocity and it looks like flights to Kigali start at $2,500—that’s with three stops and two plane changes. As much as I’d like to meet Valerie and her new goat, it seems criminal to spend potential seed money for 38 goats to do so.


Plus, my wife just told me that if she’s going to the African continent, there are a couple, three countries, maybe 10, that would be higher on her list of must-visits than Rwanda. Go ahead, try to tell her Botswana can’t possibly be as entertaining as it seems in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (but, OMG, if you haven’t watched the HBO series, Netflix it now).

So, instead of sending myself, I’m going to have to be content with sending a letter, telling Valerie that we haven’t been receiving many rains in Southern California either. Perhaps I’ll disclose to this third sister that I have no children, but that I gained a wife last year when I married my partner of 14 years; maybe I’ll even enclose a picture of myself, and ask, if it’s not too much trouble, could she possibly send goat pics in return?